A lot has changed in the oil and gas transmission and distribution world since 1970, when Herbert L. “Herb” Fluharty formed Fluharty Engineering Inc. The company would eventually transform into the Mears Group Inc., one of the most highly respected service providers in the oil and gas industry.
Through name changes and ownership changes — Fluharty Engineering became Mears Group in 1975 and Mears Group joined Quanta Services Inc. in 2000 — one thing has remained the same: The culture of the company is squarely focused on placing a high value on its customers, employees and the services it provides. This culture extends beyond Mears Integrity Solutions but also to its horizontal directional drilling (HDD), gas distribution and sewer inspection divisions as well.
“The company became Mears around 1975, where it started the transition from civil engineering and surveying, to also focus on providing services to the pipeline industry,” says Alan Eastman, executive vice president at Mears Integrity Solutions. “Today, Mears Integrity Solutions is a premier provider of all aspects of pipeline and facility integrity management, including engineering, field corrosion surveys, integrity related construction and pipeline inspection.”
Providing services in all 50 states and internationally as well, Mears Integrity Solutions employs up to 400 team members and most are highly skilled through continuous training, certification and experience. Eastman has been a member of the Mears Group since 2005, but his work in pipeline integrity management dates to the early 1980s when he worked on the operator side of the business.
Since the company formed, Eastman notes that the Mears Integrity Solutions mission has evolved to providing safe, high-quality and cost-effective integrity services and solutions that its clients need.
“While meeting the core service needs of the industry, Mears has continually developed and implemented new engineering processes, developed and perfected new and innovative technical survey tools and construction methods, and more recently continues to develop innovative solutions to pressing pipeline integrity concerns that both improve the safety and longevity of our pipeline infrastructure,” Eastman says. He adds that Mears Integrity Solutions is known for the research and development work it has been part of for Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), NACE and others.
Two of these advancements include a zinc installation system and the Transmission Corrosion Assessment Tool (TCAT).
Used on the construction side, the patented zinc installation system installs zinc ribbon for alternating current (AC) mitigation in a column of Conducrete. Conducrete is a conductive cementitious and carbonaceous material that enhances the performance, reliability and longevity of grounding systems and cathodic protection systems. Mears’ zinc system allows for the zinc and concrete to be installed in one pass at pipeline depth, using automated trenching with custom fixtured equipment. Eastman says that the result of this special equipment, “resulted in meeting the customers’ AC mitigation design specification in the safest, most efficient and highest quality manner possible.”
Used on the technical services side, the TCAT field data collection tool offers a real time data collection computer software driven system, that is also then used to house customized, proprietary software that is used to perform corrosion risk assessment analysis of the data.
“The advancements are many. Our core competency has been to find a better and more efficient way of providing services without losing site of our mission of providing, safe, high-quality and cost-competitive services,” Eastman says.
Though there have been numerous changes and advancements over the years — both for Mears Integrity Solutions and the integrity management sector of the industry as a whole — Eastman says things really began to change in the early part of this century.
In 2002, the United States Department of Transportation, through PHMSA, enacted its Gas Transmission Integrity Management Rule. Eastman notes that this is probably one of the more singular and notable events that changed the industry. The rule changed how system owners approached their integrity management programs.
“There were advances prior to 2002, but that was a pivotal year in the gas transmission industry when the integrity management rule became effective,” Eastman says. “That required integrity threats to be assessed for, and mitigated, in high consequence areas. It is safe to say that many of these pipelines had not previously been assessed in accordance with this newer risk-based rule. Since that time the industry has learned a lot from these assessments, and the pipeline infrastructure is safer as a result.”
When the initial integrity rule became effective, clients were not well-prepared to respond. As a result, the turnkey engineering, technical and construction services that Mears Integrity Solutions offered were in high demand.
“Prior to the 2002 rule, companies did not have a lot of in-house integrity management expertise. It’s not that they did not have it, rather they have significantly grown their in-house expertise in that time,” Eastman says. “This expertise has become increasingly more engaged in the engineering and field processes that are used by companies like Mears to assess and remediate integrity threats. This is a good thing. The engagement is ultimately improving pipeline safety at a rapid pace.”
In the last three years Eastman has witnessed first-hand that operators and their integrity teams focus more on prevention of threats and not just remediating threats that are on the pipelines. By searching for, and finding, the root cause of pipeline degradation, the teams are able to prevent future anomaly growth and degradation.
“The industry has come a long way and the pipeline operators are really demonstrating the passion to do whatever is necessary to achieve zero pipeline incidents,” Eastman says. “I would say the entire pipeline community, all of the stakeholders, are on board with that. We are all aligned on that mission.”
As the operators have grown their in-house expertise, the needs have also morphed from requiring turnkey solutions to a more a la carte offering.
“While we still see efficiencies in the turnkey approach, today we focus on providing whatever value our clients might need,” Eastman says. “It could range anywhere from just needing one tech or one engineer, to performing large integrity construction remediation projects. Whatever service is needed, we do our best to provide it. Additionally, we have seen more and more focus from our clients on cost efficiency and certainty. So, we are seeing and responding to an increase in the amount of lump sum work being asked of us, in lieu of the more traditional time and materials approach.”
It is this ability to be nimble and adjust with a client’s needs, coupled with Mears’ rich history in the sector, which helps set Mears Integrity Solutions apart from others in the industry. The division provides integrity management services and solutions to most of the major oil and gas transmission operators across the Unites States. Eastman praises his employees for that success as it is a direct indicator of their skills and work ethic.
Because of the division’s wide customer reach on the operator side to its work with regulators and research associations, Mears Integrity Solutions can act as an industry unifier of sorts, “We pride ourselves at sharing and bringing best practices of the industry together. We take pride in and value the relationship that we have with pipeline safety regulators,” Eastman says. “Being part of Quanta Services, and the larger Mears Group of companies, we have direct access to sister companies that specialize in service areas we don’t provide, including Mears HDD, and a host of other well known mainline transmission and distribution service providers.”
Training and Testing
This link to Quanta Services includes the creation of two state-of-the-art training and testing facilities: The Herbert L. Fluharty Training and Test Facility at the Mears Group headquarters in Rosebush, Michigan, and the other, more recent facility, is at Quanta’s Lazy Q Ranch in La Grange, Texas. Lazy Q is a 2,100-acre facility where employees can receive hands-on safety education, skill development and certifications in a controlled environment.
The oil and gas section at Lazy Q houses pipelines in all major diameters, a flow loop and underground testing capabilities. The pipeline area was designed to be flexible and allow for various diameter pipes to be brought in for integrity testing and training, making this a custom-solution for training on a challenging project.
“It has not only a myriad of buried and aboveground gas testing and training facilities including an inline inspection testing and training facility, it also has basically everything under the sun from an electric power testing and training facility to an independent off-grid electric transmission system. It’s a robust, world-class facility,” Eastman says. “We regularly use these facilities to train our own employees, as well as the employees of our clients. Additionally, we use the facilities to perform research and development programs, such as interference studies for PRCI and the study of AC corrosion and mitigation for PHMSA.”
The Rosebush facility was commissioned in 2007 and the gas transmission facilities at the LaGrange site were commissioned in 2016.
“It is a great opportunity to go beyond the technical training on facilities in a controlled environment, but it also has meeting and lodging facilities, so it is a good opportunity to team build as well,” Eastman says. “It is a testing and training retreat so-to-speak on world-class facilities independent of any power grid and gas line, but it mimics the same conditions and problems a person would face on an actual system.”
Having facilities like these, positions Mears Integrity Solutions in the right path of where the pipeline integrity management sector is heading, in terms of challenges, technologies and workforce.
In the next decade, Eastman sees increased activities surrounding new integrity concerns, as well as those that are increasing in severity. One example is the area of stress corrosion cracking (SSC). Companies are beginning to use improved in-line inspection electromagnetic acoustic transducer (ILI EMAT) technology on a widespread basis to detect and size SCC on gas pipelines. The result is a renewed focus by the industry to implement management strategies to combat the threat of SCC.
“Another example is corrosion control challenges presented by horizontal directionally drilled and installed pipelines,” Eastman says. “The industry is just starting to see some corrosion anomalies in HDD installed pipelines, which is prompting additional research and focus on advancing corrosion control practices on these pipelines.”
As for the industry challenges, Eastman’s background on the operator side of the business yielded one answer and his role on the service provider side yielded another. For the operators, the challenge is finding enough time, resources (both in terms of people and money) and the technologies to complete the critical integrity management activities.
“From a service provider’s perspective, our challenge is being able to plan our workload such that we can ensure that we meet all of our clients’ needs with the most skilled employees possible and deliver safe, cost-effective solutions,” Eastman says.
Not unlike the installation end of the oil and gas pipeline industry, workforce concerns are an issue on the integrity management side too, but it is an area where an industry veteran like Eastman feels energized.
“We at Mears are hiring a lot of people out of college, as well as high schools and trade schools, and are continuing to train and grow our workforce from the ground up. A lot of these folks entering our industry have a lot to offer,” Eastman says. “Yes, it is an issue, but we are focused on bridging that gap and taking advantage of what the younger generation has to offer. I see it on the operating side, as well with a slew of young engineers and talented people interested in learning the passion of the seasoned people. They are demonstrating ownership in carrying that legacy through and improving that legacy. That makes me energized about the situation. It is a challenge that is being met head on.”
Mike Kezdi is associate editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.