Whenever there is a collapse in the oil price that affects oil company operating budgets, activities that have less tangible benefits are put under greater scrutiny and pressure to be reduced. One of these activities is inspection and maintenance of plant, structure and wells, particularly if the operation requires any interruptions to normal production. The current oil price crisis is not the first the industry has suffered – this is at least the fourth during my career, albeit the longest-lasting. We therefore have experience from previous situations to call on – and it is not necessarily comforting.
Just as the industry can become used to high oil prices quickly – leading to cost inflation – so too can the industry become used to lower levels of maintenance and, particularly, inspection. What is intended as a short-term expediency becomes the new norm.
Previous crises have led to smarter methods of planning and executing inspection and the development of new techniques, both for undertaking and deploying inspection tools. Examples of this include risk-based inspection, flooded member detection (for underwater structural members) and long-range inspection techniques including ultrasonics and intelligent pigs. Hindsight has shown that some of our earlier, highly intensive inspection was missing the point, or at least giving us an unwarranted sense of security.
There are ageing installations across the world, many of which are not producing any significant net income and yet continue to operate in the expectation that oil prices will improve – and because of the potential financial benefit of delaying decommissioning. In these circumstances it is relatively easy to adopt a ‘fix when broken’ approach, at least from a purely commercial perspective. In reality, this means when something breaks down the implications of its repair will be compared with the implications of decommissioning the facility. In practice, the safety and environmental consequences of failure of any piece of equipment also have to be considered. Also, particularly for offshore installations, it helps if much of the plant is still operational for use during decommissioning and removal operations.
Condition monitoring (especially for plant) and structural health monitoring are useful tools in reducing maintenance and explicit inspection activities. Some of the techniques are not new – used lubricating oils, for example, have been analysed to assess wear of bearings and other damage for several decades now. Other techniques are not yet in use for various reasons including cost of initial installation, understanding what the equipment can tell us and interpreting the results. There is little point in installing a complex system without having adequate baseline data to enable meaningful conclusions to be drawn. Equally there is little point in having a sophisticated method of assessing results unless the tools to provide the data exist.
To some extent this is a chicken and egg situation. However, unless industry comes up with a consensus on what data can be usefully collected and how often that data is required (periodically or continuously) by condition or structural health monitoring systems, as well as how that data is likely to be used, then the system developers will have to gamble on developing technology with no guaranteed market – somewhere they have been before.
As it takes time to develop and field-prove such equipment, now is the time for this consensus to be developed, so that the equipment is ready for use when industry budgets are once again available to validate and install appropriate systems.
TWI has a team of engineers and scientists dedicated to developing and improving condition and structural monitoring tools. Visit our Condition and Structural Health Monitoring pages to find out more about this area of our work, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.