Oil and Gas Tragedies – Prevention Through Technology

23 March 2011 (Last Updated March 23rd, 2011 18:30)

Despite complex and highly developed safety measures, accidents in the oil and gas industry occur frequently. Elisabeth Fischer spoke to Rolf Panzke, industry director of Siemens Sensors and Communication in Germany about developing new technologies to avoid the next big blow-out.

Oil and Gas Tragedies – Prevention Through Technology

Last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has reignited the debate about the development of effective safety and security technologies for drilling and exploration operations. Despite all of the new developments in the field, working on offshore platforms is still one of the most dangerous jobs in the industry but new safety and security technologies can help to minimise some of the risks.

The second Arena Oil and Gas Technology Forum, taking place in mid-April 2011 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, focuses on some of the most controversial and critical developments influencing the exploration, drilling, procurement and subsea offshore industries. One of the most-discussed topics will be the development of reliable and efficient safety technologies for drilling and exploration operations.

Improving technologies to dramatically increase the safety of drilling and exploration operations, uncovering advanced technologies to ensure blow-out prevention and maximising the safety through enhanced operation and energy efficiency and optimised maintenance management are objectives the industry has to address in the upcoming years to avoid further disasters in the future.

Speaking at the Arena International event will be Rolf Panzke, industry director at Siemens Automation Division, Sensors and Communication, Germany, who manages the company’s overall marketing activities for sensors and communication and plans safety products and solutions related to chemical and petrochemical, oil and gas, and shipbuilding industries. As a preview, he talks about the importance of constantly monitoring drilling and exploration operations, new safety equipment and how the industry can learn from mistakes made in the past.

"There is already a very high safety standard in drilling and exploration operations but…that’s not sufficient enough."

Elisabeth Fischer: How important is the need to dramatically increase safety in drilling and exploration operations?

Rolf Panzke: The need for increased safety in drilling and exploration operations has emerged because of all the accidents that have happened during those operations. The most recent was the BP horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But there is an overall need for safety on oil and gas facilities.

On offshore facilities it’s for example the control of blow-outs as well as the constant monitoring of valves. There is definitely a high demand and need for intelligent automation systems and safety devices.

EF: What are the shortcomings of the technologies currently providing safety during drilling and exploration operations?

RP: The technologies currently in use are valve positioners, pressure, temperature, flow and level transmitters – it’s basically intelligent automation control systems and software. There is already a very high safety standard in drilling and exploration operations but as we have seen in the past that’s not sufficient enough.

Exploration and drilling processes are constantly going deeper, the machines are venturing new frontiers and operations are getting more difficult. The expectations towards these technologies are increasing and the demand on safety and on the physical requirements of these operations are progressively more difficult to accomplish.

Therefore, new innovations and technologies are necessary in order to fulfill the expectations towards these expensive and resource-consuming offshore operations.

EF: What is the industry doing to learn from previous mistakes?

RP: Through what we call condition-based monitoring and management, which means we are monitoring the condition of facilities or their components such as valves or safety shutdown valves, for example. We measure the condition of the valves and then we can predict and prevent their failure. This process means that we can develop safety systems, and have the knowledge and the industry competence on what can happen under certain circumstances through equipment that can measure and check the condition of a facility before it fails.

"We can solve problems through identifying them and take the right actions in advance."

Continuous data collection as well as data collected during incidents has certain diagnostic features, which enable us to predict the condition of the equipment such as filters, pumps and safety valves.

When we know the state of the facility or the components, we can take the requested steps to avoid the occurrence of possible failures. We can solve problems through identifying them and take the right actions in advance.

Condition-based monitoring is basically a complete system. It can measure for example leaks, corrosion and deterioration, vibration and all kinds of physical circumstances in filters, pumps and tubes, in deposits, in pipes and all other systems. One major part is definitely also the positioning of leak detection in pipelines to avoid over-spilling in tanks.

EF: What are the biggest dangers in drilling and exploration operations?

RP: The major danger in drilling is uncontrolled blow-outs, which means when unexpected gas leaks from the borehole. Getting this under control is usually no problem as people and companies working in drilling and exploration have the required experience to handle them and the safety technologies in place know how to cope with it every day.

However, the whole equipment used in order to prevent a blow-out has to be of the highest technological standards to make sure that it doesn’t fail when a blow-out does occur. We have to make sure that all the relevant equipment involved in these blow-out prevention processes are working properly and ready to operate in a very short period of time. Immediate reaction is necessary in order to increase safety, which is basically an automation real-time measurement.

EF: How close do you work with the industry or actual workers on drilling and exploration operations when developing new technologies?

RP: We work very closely with the industry and with companies such as BP, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Saudi Aramco, Gasco and Statoil. In the oil and gas industry, not just in offshore, but also during subsea deepwater and other operations like ocean-going ships and pipelines is this partnership an important cooperation for both sides. A lot of the safety and security equipment currently in use has been developed in cooperation with those companies. Safety technologies are usually joint developments.

EF: What are technologies to prevent blow outs in the future?

RP: It’s basically a new generation of mass-flow, new innovational technologies in industrial process radar systems and new systems in order to detect leaks like noises or cavity noises, corrosion, advanced compressor and temperature technologies. Another new technology is the gas analysis.

Some of them have already proved themselves on the market. Some of the new technologies have not really been proven in use yet because they have just been launched to the market, which is a normal process and part of the development of safety technologies. They will have to prove themselves during the drilling and exploration operations.

"The major danger in drilling is uncontrolled blow-outs, which means when unexpected gas leaks from the borehole."

EF: Are safety regulations in Europe and the US helping the development of new technologies?

RP: The development is mainly influenced by hazardous area approvals such as ATEX in Europe or NAPSI (National Association of Professional Standards in Industry) regulations, Canadian Standards Association’s (CSA) regulations and the Factory Mutual (FM) in the US. All the safety technologies have to be designed and developed according to those standards.

Also important is the safety integrity level SIL 2 and 3, which means that redundant safety equipment has to be available at any time. In case one system fails the redundant system is available and ready to react immediately. This is what we call safety integrity level SIL 2 and 3.

In general, resource and development takes a lot of time. Very often you don’t find the solution immediately and you can’t get the approval for a new technology because you are running out of resources, out of money and very often you have to start again. You will never have a success rate of 100% with a new technology.

The Arena International Oil & Gas Technology Forum will take place in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on 13-15 April 2011.