Here at ARC Advisory Group, we are well known for our research and expertise on supply chain and automation technologies used by the process industries. I’ve been waiting for one of our process industry gurus to write something about the Gulf oil spill and Larry O’Brien finally did last week in “How the Gulf Oil Spill Affects Process Automation, Safety, and Asset Management” (available to ARC clients only).
Rather than examining the causes of this particular incident or assigning blame, Larry focuses his comments on the primary questions that need to be answered today: “What can we learn from this mishap?” and “How can the industry prevent a reoccurrence of this type of event?”
The Deepwater Horizon disaster is just one of many incidents in recent years in process plants and other industrial facilities. The lessons from those failures almost certainly apply to the Gulf oil spill.
“Many of these incidents might have been prevented by appropriate application of a modern process safety system incorporating both safety instrumented system (SIS) technology and intelligent devices with remote diagnostics capabilities,” writes Larry in the report. “The technology exists today to provide advanced, online diagnostics for everything from control valves to pressure transmitters, machinery, and even blowout preventers.”
ARC conducts market studies on a broad spectrum of automation technologies, and market growth for process safety systems already exceeds growth in basic process control systems (BPCSs).
Further, plant asset management (PAM) systems incorporate maintenance best practices. When PAM systems are combined with intelligent field devices, a proactive maintenance strategy can be created. But as Larry points out, “maintenance work practices…must be modified to take maximum advantage of all that PAM has to offer and this change can be challenging to institute.”
In short, technology is not the total solution. As Larry states in the report:
Major plant incidents are usually the result of a confluence of factors, all converging at the same time to create an environment outside of the normal pre-operations testing environment. Most recent incidents in the process industries have some sort of procedural element associated with them. Either proper procedures were not followed, or no standard operating procedure was defined for the operator or maintenance person to follow. Many procedures in the process industries tend to be manual or guided procedures. While there is a place for these, the process industries can benefit greatly from a drive to automate many critical procedures, such as startup and shutdown.
None of these measures are sufficient, however, without implementing a good safety culture. Regulations can be imposed and technologies adopted, but without a high regard for safety in all facets of day-to-day operations and the mindset to make intelligent decisions, bad decisions will still be made, corners will still be cut, and accidents will continue to happen. As we’ve stated many times, a good safety culture must be disseminated from the highest levels of executive management on down. It requires constant vigilance and a certain set of corporate values that must be continuously monitored and maintained.
Finally, there’s no need to anticipate an increased regulatory environment in the wake of the oil spill—it’s already happening. President Obama suspended deepwater oil drilling permits for at least the next six months and has ordered a halt to drilling off the Alaska coast. Leases issued to companies exploring for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of Virginia have been halted. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has stated that wells not covered under the moratorium “…will require certification of all blowout preventers, stronger procedures for keeping wells under control, a tougher inspection process, and expanded safety and training requirements for rig workers.”