In a contributed article for Internet of Business, Neil Bird, engineering director at flare gas measurement company Fluenta makes the case for IoT technology in reducing safety risks in oil and gas operations.
In August 2015, an explosion at a gas treatment plant on the west coast of Venezuela demonstrated the need for the highest levels of safety in oil & gas operations.
The explosion took place at a processing plant in the Cardon IV Block of the Perla gas field, around 50km offshore of the North West of the Gulf of Venezuela, at one of the biggest offshore gas fields in Latin America. Fortunately, the explosion did not cause any fatalities, yet these kinds of incidents often do lead to the loss of life.
There are many potential causes of on-site explosions: the sudden release of gas under pressure or the introduction of an ignition source into an explosive or flammable environment. The Hydrocarbon Releases (HCRs) that cause explosions like these are, in simple terms, leaks.
It is inevitable that leaks will happen during operations, and while significant efforts have been made to reduce these, innovations in remote monitoring technology can be exploited to reduce the associated risk further.
A recent campaign called Step Change in Safety,supported by all of the stakeholders in the UK offshore industry, neatly demonstrates what can be achieved. In 2010, the total number of HCRs was 187. The Step Change in Safety campaign aimed to reduce this by 50 percent over a three-year period and while it came up fractionally short – only reducing the number by 49 percent – the approach demonstrates what is possible when more focus and attention is paid to safety issues.
Monitoring potentially explosive environments for the presence of flammable vapours is an important health and safety practice and should be supported using accurate measuring equipment. By combining IoT advances in remote connectivity and innovations in monitoring technology, the success that has already been achieved in this area can be increased significantly.
IoT for remote monitoring in oil & gas
When applied effectively, remote asset management through connected infrastructure will revolutionize oil and gas operations. While the ability to operate oil rigs without any personnel on-board is still some way off, any reduction in the number of personnel needed is likely to quickly add up to a considerable cost saving and inherently reduces the risk of casualties during emergency incidents.
The capability to access diagnostic information remotely is already widely used in the utilities sector where, for example, remote assets have been controlled by telemetry for many years to manage several tasks. Typical examples are regular reporting of asset well-being and diagnostics when an asset may be malfunctioning.
Historically, it has been necessary for personnel to check whether assets were working or not. That costs time and money, and at its core, places a human life in a potentially dangerous environment. Not only does remote measurement and polling of these assets significantly reduce cost, but inherent risk.
Ubiquitous internet connectivity
It is cloud technology and the ubiquity of internet connectivity that fundamentally brings significant change to remote asset management. Cloud is the infrastructure or network over which an application or programme can run on many different computers simultaneously, and with remote asset monitoring relates specifically to the internet.
Monitoring equipment installed on local assets transmits information in real time to software that is stored on central servers, rather than physically on-site. When real-time data is fed into software such as continuous emission monitoring system (CEMS), organisations can continuously collect, record and report data remotely.
Better management through measurement
The combination of accurate, real-time information on remote assets and cloud technology can have a significant positive impact on moving an oil and gas operation from a monitoring approach to a management approach. It enables companies to access information on extreme events, and make strategic decisions based on historic data.
Data enables insight and insight enables better management, and this in turn should lead to reduced risk. The oil and gas industry matches high risk against high reward, and any action that can be taken to reduce risk means that a higher proportion of the reward is accessible.
In late 2015, dozens of oil workers were killed in a fire aboard a rig in the Caspian Sea. This was caused by a gas pipeline that was damaged in high winds. By recording critical data to the cloud, companies can understand the impact of extreme weather on oil rigs and implement procedures to reduce the risk of a similar incident. Had the owners of the rig been more aware of the likelihood of such an incident happening, the workers would have evacuated the site earlier.
The human factor
Ironically, the most critical aspect of deploying successful IoT communication systems for remote asset monitoring is human involvement. Connected infrastructure will report accurate information in real-time, but skilled humans still need to interpret and analyse the information, to turn it into actionable insight to make better decisions. IoT applications also need to be designed with fail safes, to ensure that immediate escalation for human intervention takes place when required and the monitoring systems are themselves monitored.
Rather than taking the place of human beings, the best IoT applications will enhance people’s abilities to make accurate decisions, reducing cost, improving capability and, most important, reducing risk.
Nowhere will this be more applicable than in the high-risk oil and gas industry, but this is also an industry that can experience a host of ancillary benefits through connected monitoring infrastructure. As regulations become increasingly targeted, complex, and legally enforceable, businesses in the oil and gas industry need to harness the most innovative technology if they are to maximise the financial potential of their operations in an increasingly uncertain environment.
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