What is asset integrity?

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What does asset integrity mean for the oil and gas industry?

Asset integrity, or asset integrity management systems (AIMS) is the term for an asset’s capacity to run effectively and accurately, whilst also protecting the wellbeing of all personnel and equipment with which it interacts – as well as the measures in place to assure the asset’s life cycle. Asset integrity applies to the entirety of an assets operation, from its design phase to its decommissioning and replacement.

The constant business challenge for asset integrity managers is how to balance the designing, maintenance, and replacement of assets throughout their life cycle with the costs to business – in terms of finance, time, and resources. At its heart, it is the managing of the degradation of assets.

Elements of asset integrity management

Much of the oil and gas industry’s infrastructure is now either approaching or ageing far past its operational life expectancy. With the cost of replacing assets, and the resultant turnaround time, prohibitively high for so many facilities, asset integrity is now rivalling terms such as OPEX and Agile as the watchword on people’s lips.

Challenges such as vessel inspection, which is a significant contributing factor to production downtime, and corrosion under insulation, a frequent cause of sudden shutdowns, are on the rise – and taking the step to employ new solutions is becoming a necessity in many sites, particularly those offshore.

The human element

Asset integrity is built on a belief that the majority of people within the company will do things properly, and however optimistic that may sound, most of the time maintenance, inspection, and data management is conducted with the best of intentions. However, things are often not completed thoroughly or in as timely a manner as possible. Simple solutions like more frequent inspections won’t necessarily scoop up every missed issue, nor will it engender a spirit of enthusiasm if workers are asked to increase their inspection work, or implicated in faults that are missed.

Some signs that things may not all be well in the world of asset integrity management and inspection can include:

  • Team members feel like any concerns they have about health and safety or the state of equipment are not being taken seriously, leading to an environment in which faults are not even reported
  • Any changes made to asset integrity plans, or even basic running of the facility, only occur after a large-scale incident
  • A lack of understanding around how to find root causes from simple fault reports, often resulting in people being lulled into a false sense of security and overstating the level to which the facility is safe and operational
  • There is a reliance on tacit understanding, rather than a tangible and easily-accessible set of rules surrounding AIM and reporting faults
  • There is a lowest-bidder attitude surrounding maintenance contractors, and knowledge of and enthusiasm for asset integrity isn’t valued particularly highly

The very real result of this sort of climate is that nothing really happens. Asset integrity remains a barely tolerable nuisance – a sort of roadblock to proper work, until a major incident forces a company to adapt, often at great cost.

Plugging the gaps in asset integrity management systems

Whilst there are more AIM systems on the market than at any other point in the past, there are still no out-of-the-box catch-all solutions. No inspection plan or database can deal with all the AIM issues that can arise, but integrity systems are still seen as separate to the rest of operations. Staff can be unwilling to take ownership of their responsibilities, instead seeing the suite of various AIM packages as an attempt by the company to police them, rather than an integral part of their role.

The gaps in AIM packages need to be filled with the vigilance of the very people they are designed to protect, but a novel approach may be necessary to ensure this message is heard.

Why asset integrity management is important

Over the course of 22 minutes on July 6th 1988, the Piper Alpha North Sea oil platform leaked condensed gas that ignited and led to an explosion killing 167 of the rig’s 229 workers. This disaster is seen by many of the formative moment of modern approaches to both EH&S and AIM in oil and gas, not least because it led to a £1 billion safety measure investment from every offshore operator.

The UK government then followed up with a public inquiry which came to fruition in 1990, and contained 106 directions on how better to conduct HS&E and AIM strategies in future – all of which were accepted by the oil and gas industry.

So, now that we are living and working in an age of serious AIM efforts, which areas should people be focussing on?

Constructing an AIM strategy

Based on research conducted by Oil & Gas IQ, oil and gas operators are now engaging in price-responsive strategies and the optimisation of existing assets. In the North Sea in particular, these companies are now re-evaluating their practices in order to make ends meet. 51 per cent of oil and gas professionals are now working on installations over 20 years into their service lives – with less than a third working on installations in their first decade of service.

More than half of asset integrity professionals have had their budgets cut and the average chosen rating of those professionals own companies AIM rating was 5.4 out of ten. Only 52 per cent thought that their job load was sustainable with regards to meeting targets and maintaining safety – and the majority only had a meagre budget of less than £250,000. Unsurprisingly, the two greatest issues according to those in asset integrity are managing assets in budget and the age of the assets themselves. By far the greatest flaw perceived in oil and gas companies is the lack of communication between departments, followed by a lack of safety culture. Work to be done, indeed.

RBI: risk-based inspection

With ageing infrastructure fast becoming one of the industry’s major concerns, it is more important than ever to make sure an effective system of identification is in place. More than half of the pipelines in the US are at least 50 years old, with 3,300 leaks, including the largest in US pipeline history, eighty deaths, and nearly 400 injuries, in the past five years alone.  Despite it sounding somewhat obvious, managing integrity, corrosion, and damage is like scoping out an iceberg from some distance away.

For every easily-identifiable symptom of corrosion or asset instability, there are dozens of hidden issues: hydrogen attack, high-temperature tempering, thermal fatigue, metallurgy issues, internal system corrosion, and so on – and without dedicated and experienced professionals, implementing damage mitigation techniques is next to impossible. Once one has identified the need for thorough inspection, the next step is to enact it.

RBI, or risk-based inspection is one such method – whereby one must balance risk reduction with the minimum amount of effort required to streamline the process and free up more time. However, there are a near-infinite number of ways in which to carry our maintenance – and with many risks (such as calibration uncertainty or equipment accessibility) quantification is simply not possible. Therefore, each company must decide how far along the quantitative/qualitative scale it sits; whether to rely more heavily on experts, or statistics.

Depending on how well or badly a company nurtures its reliability culture, it will be operating in either a reactive or a proactive manner. Needless to say, you want be proactive. Failure to anticipate and monitor for hidden issues means you can only respond once problems have escalated, costing far more in the long run, and rewarding those who are shown to be able to react quickly. Far from improving the culture, this positive reinforcement further encourages reaction over action.

Identifying damage conditions - and the factors that alter them

To nobody’s surprise, increasing the temperature of the environment in which an asset is located will significantly increase the rate of degradation. But so too will localising your asset in a halogen-rich environment, or failing to identify a spike in trace compounds such as chlorides or hydroxides – or any high- or low- pH material.

Even a small but consistent stream of air into a fuel stream will damage pipelines, far more than either carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide.

Here are a few other particularly doom-laden combinations that anyone seriously committed to ensuring asset integrity should be aware of – from lead contamination in water, to nickel in acidic conditions. The majority, however, can be improved by ensuring clean and precise operations – as many damaging combinations do not occur naturally. Believe it or not, steel rigs in seawater don’t last forever, hence the rise in specialist coating vendors in the past couple of decades.

The third factor we need to consider in order to fully comprehend damage mechanism as best we can, is that of basic strain. Basic strain is when you factor in the stress inherent to the operation (as if it were operating in an ideal world).

We won’t bore you with a full run-down of the sort of things to expect in every oil and gas operation – you can, but failure to fully identify your damage mechanisms may result in you developing a AIM strategy that can compound your issues rather than solve them. Think of it as like taking the right medication for the wrong condition.

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