Corrosion Control Industry Faces Challenges to Protect Oil and Gas Infrastructure
Corrosion control specialists are charged with protecting and extending the lifecycle of critical infrastructure. For oil and gas pipelines, it’s a matter of protecting the public, as well as the environment. Corrosion is one of the leading causes of pipeline failures, but the right measures to protect these assets can ensure they operate safely, efficiently and profitably.
Protecting pipeline assets starts at the top, with the design of the system, according to Jim Feather, vice president of NACE International, the global corrosion trade organization. Recently retired from ExxonMobil Research and Engineering after a 36-year career, Feather says managing corrosion must be an organizational policy.
“I would briefly describe this as a system. Design it right, build it right and operate it right,” says Feather, who will be sworn in as NACE president at the association’s annual Corrosion conference, March 15-19, in Dallas. “Protecting assets starts with deliberate, carefully considered and planned corrosion control and corrosion management. This must come from the top down.”
Companies should have a policy statement that clearly addresses the organization’s objectives for the corrosion management system, Feather adds, saying that it’s vital to ensure the responsibilities of key personnel fall within their areas of expertise. Also, he urges that personnel must constantly keep up with changes in the industry through education, training, hands-on experience and certification.
“Pipeline owners should also allocate the appropriate resources, financial and human, to their corrosion control planning and maintenance,” Feather says. “Cutting corners in these areas puts the pipeline and the organization at risk.”
However, as the price of oil continues to fall, pipeline owners may be looking to cut budgets, which could affect corrosion control providers, says Troy Rankin, president of Farwest Corrosion Control Co., based in Downey, California. After a strong year in 2014, he expects some cutbacks to come if low oil prices persist.
“We haven’t seen any effects yet, but I expect we will,” Rankin says. “Last year was a very good year. Any time the oil and gas companies have a good year, we see a lot of spending. But now we’re seeing some projects being canceled and some layoffs on the drilling and exploration side.”
Rankin is quick to add that a lot of work has already been committed to for this year.
“We’re still early into 2015, so a good amount of work is carrying over for this year,” he says. “There’s still a lot on the horizon. But we don’t know what’s going to happen six months out.”
While funding is a major challenge for corrosion control programs, most pipeline companies recognize their importance to maintaining integrity, according to Richard Norsworthy, a corrosion consultant for Polyguard, a protective coatings and pipe repair provider based in Texas. Cutting the corrosion budget might be tempting, but not worth the risk — or potential fines.
“The corrosion control providers will be affected by the lower oil prices,” Norsworthy says. “Fortunately, most companies are aware of the need to continue an aggressive corrosion control program.
Unfortunately, some companies tend to cut these programs first, but with the regulatory requirements and the legal consequences, most companies will continue to protect their systems.”
Regardless of possible budget cuts in the oil and gas sector, corrosion control should not be on the table, Feather says. After excavation, he notes, corrosion ranks as the leading cause of pipeline failures.
“When a pipeline fails there are numerous costs to society, the environment and the owners of the pipeline,” he says. “Financially, the cost of corrosion is astronomical, more than $9 billion annually in the U.S. alone. Ensuring a proper design and installation of pipelines as well as developing, implementing and maintaining a proper corrosion control plan can ensure safety, protect the environment and provide a high return on investment to the pipeline owner.”
However, there’s not just one methodology for controlling corrosion on pipelines, Rankin says. Coating, cathodic protection, electrical isolation and proper maintenance all play a role.
“A properly installed pipeline coating system is paramount in regards to pipeline life,” he says. “Pipeline contractors have to be keenly aware and take proper measures to avoid damage to the pipeline coating system. There’s a lot of effort to make sure a coating stays as efficient and effective as possible.”
Rankin adds that cathodic protection is also critical, as it provides protection to bare or uncoated areas of the pipeline where coating systems have degraded or have been damaged. In addition, proper electrical isolation of the pipeline is important, making pipelines easier to protect. Doing advanced design and planning work saves a lot of effort later on.”
While lack of funding ranks high on the list of concerns for corrosion control programs in the oil and gas industry, there are also challenges related to increased expectations from the public for safety, stricter governmental regulations and, perhaps more than anything, a shortage of experienced personnel.
With an aging workforce that is nearing retirement, Feather warns of a “silver tsunami” as these industry veterans leave the field. NACE provides training for new people entering the industry, but he says the corrosion industry will be losing a “tremendous amount of institutional knowledge” with the wave of retirements expected in the next few years.
Even today, service companies like Farwest find one of their biggest challenges is recruiting and maintaining experienced technical personnel, Rankin says. The company works hard to hold onto its employees, but it’s a competitive job market for these positions.
“As a service company, we conduct a great deal of testing and monitoring of customers’ infrastructure,” he says. “We continually train our personnel, but demand is great and it’s difficult to hold onto experienced people.”
Norsworthy agrees, adding that having experienced and qualified people is “the most critical part” of a corrosion control program.
“Companies must continue to train, certify and provide opportunity to their corrosion control personnel to ensure the program is being properly maintained,” he says.
Aging infrastructure, particularly as it relates to pipeline coatings, is another major concern in the industry, Norsworthy says, adding that many people don’t realize that most external corrosion, stress corrosion cracking (SCC) and external corrosion issues with bacteria occur under disbonded cathodic protection (CP) shielding pipeline coatings.
Pipeline companies have a great challenge maintaining older infrastructure, Rankin says, and it can be very difficult obtaining rights of way needed to conduct work on the pipelines, especially in populated areas or designated high consequence areas (HCAs).
The bottom line is that employing corrosion control programs will extend the life cycle of a pipeline, but it’s best if done early.
“Implementing corrosion control at any point in the life of an asset can help extend the life of the asset,” Feather says, “but early use of corrosion control technology, specified and implemented by qualified corrosion professionals, can extend the life of infrastructure and reduce costs over the life of the infrastructure.”
Corrosion control programs must be comprehensive and use the top methods for internal and external corrosion control, Norsworthy says. Monitoring with the use of inline inspection (ILI) equipment is a valuable asset for companies, as well as Electro Magnetic Acoustic Transducer (EMAT) tools.
“The EMAT was developed to find small cracks that lead to failure, but one company has further developed the tool to the point it can identify disbonded coatings and somewhat the type of coating system,” Norsworthy says. “EMAT technology allows the company to be proactive instead of reactive to corrosion problems caused by disbonded coatings.”
Government regulations, while perhaps unpopular, serve as a safeguard for ensuring pipeline infrastructure is protected from corrosion.
“Government can ensure that legislation and regulations relevant to the industry includes language that supports proper corrosion control planning and the use of qualified personnel,” Feather says. “NACE International is at the forefront of this issue, with staff monitoring legislation and visiting legislators in Washington every week to inform them of the importance of corrosion control.”
While some might complain about stricter regulations, Norsworthy explains that these laws were put in place “because companies were not doing what needed to be done.”
“What responsible companies find out,” he says, “is that if they meet or exceed the regulatory requirements they end up saving a considerable amount of money by taking care of their resources which reduces leaks, corrosion and improves public image.”
As Feather explains, pipeline corrosion control starts with the proper design and installation of the infrastructure. If a company takes the time to develop, implement and maintain a proper program, these assets will operate safely, while protecting the environment and providing a profitable system to the owner. He says, “This is a win-win for everyone.”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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