Is The Oil & Gas Industry Serious About Asset Integrity?

Contributor: Derek Park
Posted:  06/17/2011  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Tags: asset integrity | process improvement | asset | derek park | bp

In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, is BP and the rest of the industry genuine about wanting change? I firmly believe that the answer is yes, but another more important question remains unanswered. Are they likely to be successful in making that change? I am afraid that the answer to that question is no, not because of a deliberate disregard for integrity, but because of a cultural inability to fully embrace what needs to be done.

The search for asset integrity is not new and is not unique to BP. Great progress was made in the decade after Piper Alpha, but in the late 1990s the focus shifted, even at operational level, from assuring integrity to assuring analysts that there was nothing that could remotely threaten growth and share price.  Most worrying was that operators began to believe their own spin and manage assets on the assumption that everything in the garden really was rosy. Oil and gas production is a risky business and operations people know that the game is about assessing and managing risk. It is not helpful if the world has to believe that those risks just do not exist.

Texas City offered BP a unique opportunity to put things right, but Macondo points to the chance having been missed. Even after Deepwater Horizon the approach, once again, seems to be a big hugely expensive, top down initiative which will take years to bear fruit, be unlikely to motivate staff and may well prove ineffective.

Asset integrity relies on many people doing many things right. We all know about the importance of maintenance, engineering, inspection, data management and the rest but that is not the whole story. Things are often ignored or done incorrectly. Even when all the procedures are followed and everything is signed off, many problems remain. Often the only hope is that somebody spots these problems and does something. Increasing the level of audits etc will not help because the problems still remain hidden from everyone except for those in the front line. The answer is to create an organisation and culture that allows and encourages staff to manage the unforeseen problems. There is simply no other way to provide any increased level of assurance.

In all organisations it is easy to see the big problems but few people are even aware of the many other issues, let alone able to develop effective answers. How can we know if we are vulnerable, let alone develop quick and effective solutions? These are just some of the danger signs:

  • Staff across the organisation often feel that their concerns about plant integrity are not being taken seriously. They feel that there is little point in raising issues because nothing will be done. There is no process to help and encourage front line staff to rectify problems which are known to them and that they could routinely and legitimately deal with.
  • In many operations things happen despite, not because of, the formal procedures. There is a tacit understanding that that the rules have to be bent to get the job done and managers simply turn a blind eye. No attempt is made to understand why this might be and what should be done about it.
  • It takes a crisis or a disaster to initiate change which is then led by high powered enquiry teams who drive specific but often narrow actions ‘top down’ into the business. There is usually no understanding that the findings are not comprehensive and that the so called ‘root causes’ are in fact just the tip of a very big iceberg. The real root cause of most incidents is that organisations rely too much on procedures and ignore many things which the procedures do not or can not control.
  • Engineers and operations staff are increasingly seen as a commodity to be bought at the lowest price. Little value is attached to acquired local knowledge, informal staff networks and basic loyalty.

When change comes it is usually developed with little involvement from front line staff who at best will be lukewarm to something they see as an external imposition. Programmes are usually expensive, driven from the top and often take months if not years to implement. They are characterised by big files of procedural theory, special websites and huge roll out exercises. Often by the time the process reaches the front line, management have moved on to the next big topic and the implementation at best becomes a side issue, an irritant, a chore, or maybe just a tick box exercise.

The bottom line is that nothing really changes; it doesn’t become ‘built in’ to the organisation and intrinsic to the culture. One could speculate that cumbersome corrective processes are largely to blame for BP’s failure to act quickly enough after Texas City to prevent the even more serious Macondo incident.

So what can be done? Many people acknowledge a general problem but unfortunately few have the vision or ability to see the solution. If we accept that in even a well run organisation there are still many problems, any one of which could cause the next loss, then where do we start? How can we design an asset integrity system which is guaranteed to identify and remedy all these things? The answer is we can’t. There is no inspection regime, database and set of operating procedures that can cope with absolutely everything. We must do all we can to ensure they are as good and effective as possible, but we also have to recognise that there will still be a shortfall. So what is the answer?

Integrity systems are often seen as stand alone pieces of process that run in parallel with operations. From their point of view, staff see them as ‘policing’ their activities rather than as something which helps them improve safety and performance. Staff should see themselves as a key part of the integrity process. They should feel able to use their local skills and knowledge to fix small, routine problems as they arise rather than wait and hope for the ‘system’ to deal with them later. We can only hope to plug the many small but critical gaps in integrity systems if we take advantage of this local expertise.

This may require a different approach from staff and management. It is not about suggestion schemes and feedback forms but something much more comprehensive. The good news is that there are plenty of examples of this being done successfully and the even better news is that it brings many other business benefits alongside improved integrity.

Nothing happens in life unless people take action. Even the best formal integrity systems remain vulnerable if staff are not a central part of the process. The eyes and actions of those on the frontline offer the only hope of plugging the inevitable gaps. To have any hope of avoiding yet another Piper Alpha or Deepwater Horizon, the industry must recognise this.

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Contributor:   Derek Park


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