The oil and gas industry uses refineries and other industrial facilities as their production powerhouse. While coke crackers, turbines, and heat exchangers often steal the spotlight, the facilities cannot operate without the network of piping systems joining all of this equipment together. The function of these versatile piping systems varies, but generally they are used to process and transport large quantities of gas, chemicals, and other process components as efficiently as possible.
To maintain operational integrity, these facilities are designed and built to stringent engineering standards. They also undergo rigorous testing to ensure that there are zero leaks on startup. Unfortunately, despite the many precautionary measures taken, leaks are a fairly common occurrence, and are a significant contributor to the industry’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the leaks from bolted joints contribute 170 million metric tons of fugitive greenhouse gas annually.
For decades, the industry has accepted these leaks—and by extension their emissions—as an unavoidable cost of doing business. To keep emissions as low as possible, quickly detecting leaks became an industry-wide priority. But as the world places a renewed focus on sustainability, even the immediate detection of leaks is no longer good enough.
Concurrently, the global digital transformation is bringing about huge efficiency gains that we never thought possible. These seismic shifts beg a new question to be asked. Can the industry move beyond passive leak detection to a new era of proactive leak prevention? The answer is a resounding: yes!
With the advent of new digital technologies, leak prevention is no longer just a pipe dream (pun intended). It’s a feasible reality that will help oil and gas shed its “dirty industry” reputation by launching it headfirst into the new era of sustainability.
The environmental impact of pipeline leaks
The need for a transition to a proactive leak prevention approach is predicated on the enormous environmental impact of oil and gas leaks. According to the Interntional Energy Agency, methane leaks from fossil fuel operations in 2021 could have generated an additional 180 billion cubic meters of gas.
Since the oil and gas industry is already responsible for large amounts of greenhouse gases, limiting unnecessary emissions by preventing leaks is a win-win way to reduce emissions. It helps the environment and is also good for the bottom line of oil and gas companies.
But first, it’s important to take a closer look at what exactly is causing leaks in the first place.
What causes piping leaks?
Industrial piping leaks have several causes. Leaks can happen because of damage that occurs during construction activities, improper assembly or operations, metal or material failure, insufficient maintenance, or corrosion.
This laundry list of culprits is part of the reason why the industry has accepted post-facto prevention as the primary solution for so long. However, many fail to identify the singular root cause that is responsible for the majority of these leak causes: bolted joints.
The improper assembly and maintenance of bolted joints is one of the most common reasons that leaks oc cur. This could simply mean that a bolt is over or under-torqued, or even that the tightening technician failed to identify obvious signs of corrosion.
A better system for bolted joint management (and beyond)
In order to proactively identify leaks before they occur, a better system is needed for bolted joint management and beyond. This can be done by focusing on the current way the industrial piping is constructed and maintained.
A more proactive approach to leaks can be achieved by projects that are able to successfully able to deploy three crucial pieces of technology:
- A mobile application that has step-by-step instructions to guide workers through each step of the workflow. The application should also be able to capture quality data (such as pictures and tool values) and require that workers complete a questionnaire to ensure the work has been completed correctly.
- Bluetooth-connected digital tools that allow teams to set target torque values. This brings a level of consistency to projects, ensuring that the right torque value is reached for each and every bolt. Plus, this work data can be stored virtually in the event of an audit.
- A cloud-based quality control center where quality personnel can monitor, review and approve all work being completed from anywhere in the world. This has the added benefit of increasing bandwidth so the quality team can spend their time where it’s most needed.
For example, this three-part digital system was used by Bechtel and was proven to dramatically reduce bolted joint leak rates to 0.1 percent, which represents a 100x reduction as compared to the 10 percent industry average. This was done by deploying a bolted joint management system at scale during the construction of Shell’s Pennsylvania Chemicals project.
While bolted joint management is an excellent application of this three-part system, it can also be more broadly applied to nearly any leak that is caused by human error. The result is better safety, productivity, and quality—a win-win-win situation.
Transitioning from physical to digital
The only major remaining barrier to adopting this proactive approach is the industry’s lag in adopting digital technologies. This is often blamed on the conservative nature of the oil and gas industry, the inability to accurately calculate return on investment, or just a general lack of interoperability.
Whatever the reason may be, digital transformation is an ongoing industry-wide challenge. Physical processes and systems are still embraced as “industry standard”, even as more cost-effective and efficient digital alternatives advance.
New technologies are not being fully implemented beyond perhaps an initial pilot—however promising they may be. This is stunting growth and promoting a culture where recruiting younger generations is a challenge because the common saying is “but this is the way we’ve always done it.”
However, innovative players are beginning to overcome this challenge and embrace digitalization. They have a head start in using these technologies to gain a competitive advantage. It seems that the race is finally on to see who is best able to embrace technology to improve sustainability. Who will win?
About Matthew Kleiman
Matt Kleiman is the co-founder & CEO of Cumulus Digital Systems, a connected worker platform that ensures mission-critical work across the energy, infrastructure, and construction sectors is done right the first time, every time. Matt can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.