... Opinion: How a Happy Control Room Can Help Prevent Oil Spills

Opinion: How a Happy Control Room Can Help Prevent Oil Spills

control room

On Oct. 6, 2021, a 13-in. tear in an oil pipeline off the southern coast of California was reported. The reports indicated that it was hours before facility operations understood what was happening and shut in the isolation valves for the line to mitigate any further flow into the Pacific Ocean. It has been speculated that the cause of the rupture was an anchor that hooked the pipeline. An additional interesting fact is that the pipeline itself was 41 years old, not an uncommon vintage for critical energy infrastructure around the globe.

As of Nov. 11, a CNN report noted that another oil sheen was spotted near the same location. At the time, proactive measures had already been issued and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had not confirmed a spill. At the time of writing this, it is yet to be seen if there is another spill in the same area. As I am sure, southern California locals and others like myself — folks who are working hard to ensure safe, environmentally friendly, efficient and reliable energy to the world of 7 billion people is hoping this new announcement is a false alarm.

Critical energy infrastructure in many places of the world is no spring chicken. In North America specifically, building new pipeline infrastructure has become very challenging in the recent decade. From Keystone XL to the Dakota Access Pipeline to last minute opposition of the Enbridge Line 3 replacement, building and replacing energy pipeline infrastructure is becoming a task with monumental hurdles. Additionally, the insular nature of our industry has not won us many friends in the energy transition effort, despite the fact that oil and gas will be an important part of the energy mix for decades to come, to ensure as a population we take care of the planet and combat energy poverty. These items are resulting in less investment toward energy pipelines, yet operating companies are still expected to produce returns.

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When it comes to automation and control systems for pipelines that are over 30 years old, in many cases, we are at least five to seven years behind modern software capabilities. Even if recent software control system packages are in place, the declining workforce and inability to attract fresh talent means that “if it’s working, don’t fix it.”

Let’s add a little more to the Swiss cheese model that results in these seemingly preventable accidents. Control room designs and how to set humans up for success was an afterthought when many of these control systems were put into place. I have heard amongst executives in the industry that in the past, the goal of a control room operator was to work around the system they were given and to get it to perform. That is to say, this is the job they are paid to do, and it doesn’t matter if it’s enjoyable or easy to be successful.

Many studies have been conducted over time indicating that this is the incorrect viewpoint. However, in too many of these cases, the capital costs to redesign a control room and control system is prohibitive.
Personally, I’m not a fan when the media paints a picture of control room operators making a mistake or stating that they “should have seen it.” In more cases than not, due to tools, design, culture or lack of functional work environment, these folks are inherently set up to fail. Imagine trying to do the best you can with what you have and your screens are so confusing that you didn’t see anything going wrong? Or, you are so busy with another pipeline system that you don’t notice what’s going on with a low pressure and increasing flow rate — an indication of a leak. Sure, there are leak detection systems, and there should be “high high” and “low low” limits that trigger shutdown events, but a small operating company may not have the budget to make these systems successful.

While the above covers why, despite technology and people being in the hot seat, we as an industry continue to have these incidents. What can we do about it?

Per my engineering nature, I will divide the focus areas into three: technical, control room design and company culture. Also, per my engineering nature, we will then tackle them in a nice list as it makes my brain happy — and hopefully yours too.

Technical Improvements

Some of these items can and should sound obvious to some. However, if they are not — excellent, you have come to the right place and deserve acknowledgement on your pursuit of constant improvement.
Inside most SCADA and DCS systems, “high high” and “low low” trip limits can be set to turn off pumps, or the whole pipeline if those limits are reached and maintained for a specified duration. Alarms are typically also displayed when these limits are hit to notify the control room operator that there is an issue. It is possible that in the noble pursuit of alarm rationalization to ease up on alarms for control room operators, too many have been removed and result in a lack of notifications.

There could be a chance that these may not have been set up at all or set up incorrectly, or overridden because they are usually incorrect nuisance alarms. To solve these potential issues, there is software that can automate control room operator procedures for them, ensuring that upon a trip alarm the system is brought down in a safe way, including the isolation valves. Additionally, it can be configured that a control room operator cannot restart the system until they have completed an approval or acknowledged checks that are specific to a safe restart of the system.

Control Room Design Considerations

Now, if a control room operator’s working environment is not conducive to clarity and ease of work, then the operator is set up to fail. Operators should have the ability to see their screens from anywhere in the room, but there should not be so many screens that a new control room operator gets effectively lost in the operation. This makes a considerable difference to preventing accidents, both safety and environmental.

Company Culture Considerations

Culture is often a forgotten factor in day-to-day operations as it’s hard for a fish to name water. I feel strongly that culture is a central factor to incidents, leaks and thus spills for oil pipelines. Culture can be an ambiguous word for technical folks in operations roles or even executives in technical operations companies like oil pipelines. Cultural factors that I have seen to positively impact safety culture and the success of control room operations are continuous improvement, autonomy and valued employees. A continuous improvement mindset is not a new concept, but what is new is losing the “build it ourselves in-house mentality”.

In today’s workforce, oil and gas companies are kidding themselves to think that top, cutting-edge talent is flocking to our industry. Due to that fact, not only do companies lack the talent to continually improve, but the only continuous improvement that veteran employees know is what they have seen before, both in ideas and methods to execute. Think about how far the tech sector has come in the last decade — it will be impossible to draw that parallel to the oil and gas industry in the next ten years if we keep doing what we have been doing with the same people.

Creating a culture that will look outside of the pipe walls and partner with digital-first firms is not only a strategy to continue a continuous improvement mindset, but also positively impact the bottom line. Autonomy for all employees is another key factor. Daniel Pink covers these concepts in his book, “DRIVE,” employees that are empowered will do what’s right for the business and what’s right for themselves, which in turn is right for the business. Funny how that works.

Front line workers such as control room operators need to feel valued. Gone are the days of “this is what they are paid to do and I don’t care if it’s hard or unenjoyable”. Leadership of operating companies must take ownership for the well-being of existing, as well as millennial and the incoming Gen Z workforce (assuming they can attract and retain the latter two).

The long-term effects of oil spills like the one in Southern California can last decades. It is anticipated that tar balls will be washing up on Huntington Beach for months. It is said that it could take decades for the oil to completely deteriorate in nearby wetlands where it has seeped. When birds are covered in oil, they ingest it while preening their feathers in addition to the absorption on their skin that could result in death for many. Dolphins and other sea animals will accidentally ingest oil as they are swimming, not realizing that it’s bad for them.

Remember, the control room is the crux of the operation. If these folks aren’t valued, given the right tools for the job or exist in a culture of continuous improvement -the new kind where we partner with digital first firms to increase access to ideas and talent- pipeline operating companies and the industry as a whole is at risk every day of safety incidents, environmental incidents and financial loss.

Vicki Knott is cofounder and CEO of CruxOCM, a company that specializes in finding efficiency and safety through automation to revolutionize control room operations.


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