Asset Integrity Management – Expecting Stormy Waters?

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The UK's first oil pipeline, BP’s 130 mile artery from Cruden Bay to Grangemouth officially went online on 3rd November 1975. Fortysomething years later, the majority of the initial infrastructure – from pipelines to platforms – that pumped the black gold and natural gas from field to shore have outlived their original design life.

More than 50 per cent of the offshore platforms that came online at the peak of production in the late seventies and early eighties have exceeded their optimum operational lifetime by up to 15 years, and with continued demand for production, the majority of platforms are likely to significantly push this already overstretched boundary.

The North Sea case is just one example of the issues faced in asset integrity managament the globe over. Cue the seemly boundless wisdom of Benjamin Franklin to summarise a complicated situation….

"Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."

Perhaps Ben was cutting to the chase when he proclaimed death and taxes to be the only foregone conclusion? In the Oil and Gas world, an installation’s death is not an option but ageing is certainly one of those constants that will persist in presenting challenges and risks to both commercial and human interests worldwide.

Alongside the inevitable wear and tear that is to be expected in an offshore environment, assets will also have to contend with a range of procedural modifications such as changes in well or process condition, and technological advances that mean some systems fall into obsolescence or necessitate reappraisal to ensure appropriate integrity management.

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."

The more tangible infrastructure changes that might pose a threat to asset integrity management are also met by the effects of generational shift. For example, although the average age of North Sea oil professionals now stands at 40.4 years-old - its lowest since 2006 – personnel turnover and corporate restructuring have had an impact in the continuity of knowledge and experience in the asset integrity fold.

Without question, a well-maintained asset is a safer asset, and one that will present fewer problems to the purse or public and corporate perception of your business. At a time when Brent Crude is hovering around the $100 mark, the costs incurred by asset failure and the knock on reduction in production time will be more acutely felt on a company’s bottom line than in a $50 a barrel plateau. This is not to say that asset integrity should be more closely scrutinised when more money is on the line, but there is no greater persuasion in business than the promise of heavy losses.

"Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship."

One need look no further than BP’s Texas City disaster in 2005 for solid proof that scrimping on maintenance and cutting costs can lead to the very worst of worst case scenarios. With 15 dead, more than 100 injured, $2 billion in legal fees and $1 billion in lost revenue incurred from the crippling of the third largest refinery in North America, the impetus for North Sea operators to plug those small leaks should be plain to see.

"I conceive that the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things."

The difficulty for asset integrity managers is to identify exactly where on the curve assets lie at any one time, and to work out how to mitigate the effects of the deleterious factors mentioned above. If this is done, companies can ensure that they never end up in a position where (A) is a reality, and can guarantee that on the way to (B), the trough of the curve is as shallow as possible.

The issues of asset integrity management experienced now will generally underpin the global industry in the decades to come. We can only hope that the lessons to be learned from current practice and past error will be learned swiftly and with minimal hardship.

The last thing the Oil and Gas industry needs is to fulfill Franklin’s warning that: "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other."