In a particularly volatile oil and gas industry subject to cyclical fluctuations in oil prices and an increase in adopted flexible labour models, the demand for core expertise and subject matter experts will not only exist but also increase in the coming years.
The rate at which industry veterans are retiring is worryingly increasing, and it’s well-reported that there is no pipeline of talent to replace it. These experienced professionals take with them core knowledge including an in-depth understanding of best practice and standards, processes and practices, much of which was learnt during the technology innovations and changes to operating environments during the 1980-90s. The industry needs to fill the expertise gap so that important knowledge is not lost.
But, core knowledge not only needs to be relearnt and fostered internally it must also be adapted for new and evolving industry challenges and applied across the supply chain. This is especially important as the industry, driven by the need to produce hydrocarbons at greater depths, in hostile environments and more arduous operating conditions faces new engineering challenges. These new demands mean that practices and process have to evolve accordingly.
A threefold strategic approach that includes the below will help address the knowledge gap:
· Internal training to up-skilling employees on core knowledge
· Industry collaboration and investment to develop and implement best practice through the supply chain
· Technology transfer – sharing learnings from one industry to another - to address new challenges
The surge of knowledge loss for current standards
In the 1980’s the exploitation of marginally economic offshore fields was the catalyst for developing radically new ways of producing and processing oil and gas. This era gave birth to great technology advances especially within the fields of geoscience, drilling and flow assurance, and alongside these informed in-depth industry best practice and know-how in those who partook at the time, many of whom are now industry veterans.
In the past, best practice established by these subject matter experts helped mitigate against the risks associated with bringing new technologies, products and processes into the industry. Risks such as serious health and safety breaches, unplanned maintenance and outages, , associated consequential damages including loss of production, remediation and the effect on a company’s reputation. So any loss of this knowledge is not only alarming but also dangerous.
Yet, this core expertise, learnt through experience has often proved difficult to pass onto future generations of skilled labour. Unfortunately, the codification of this knowhow often resides in legacy codes and operational methods and documentation as to how standards are interpreted and properly applied.
The need for evolving standards to address new operational challenges
Despite the current plummet in oil and gas prices, demand for energy in both developed and developing countries is on the rise. It is set to grow by 37% by 2040, says the International Energy Agency (IEA). To keep up with the demand surge, oil and gas companies are looking to deeper water depths from which to extract new oil and gas supplies while simultaneously expanding their operations.
Greater water depths bring with them the need to evolve standards from which new products and processes can be designed and developed to meet new operating environments. The industry is moving towards operating in depths between 3000-4000m resulting in external water pressures of up to 400 bar. As a consequence, the manufacture, design and installation of elastomeric materials is just one example where the standards and practice will require greater expert judgement or become obsolete overnight.
Elastomers are found in many pieces of offshore and subsea equipment often acting as a ‘seal’ to maintain the pressure integrity between moving components. Any loss of integrity can compromise safety and effective production and so standards need to predict the long-term behaviour of elastomeric materials at these high pressures often in combination with high temperatures and toxic or corrosive fluids. A further complication is performance during unsteady (transient) operations where elastomer seals can suffer catastrophic failure due to a phenomenon called rapid gas decompression. A sudden reduction in pressure can result in liquid in the seal coming out of solution and expanding as a gas thereby ruining the seal (this is similar to the bends in divers rising too quickly after extended periods under water). This can be avoided by improving and adopting standards for elastomeric material selection, design, installation and operation. Clearly for this to be effective requires the whole supply chain to be engaged in their development.
The case for a threefold strategy
Bridging the knowledge gap and relearning and establishing new industry best practice should be focused both externally and internally, creating a 360 degree spectrum of needs. Importantly, partners in the supply chain need to adhere to agreed best practice as much as internal employees do. The first two solutions below help to address both internal and external needs and the third goes further to assure the sustainability of both.
Internal training with external experts
Specialist consultants and trade and standards bodies that have retained the knowledge lost by operating companies can fulfil the role of internal training for businesses on how to set and establish good processes to meet best practice requirements. These types of companies are also able to address how to redefine industry standards for new operating environments and train businesses to, for instance choose the right materials for subsea equipment through a thorough understanding of how the material behaviour, seal housing design, installation and operating practices over time according to best practice.
External: Collaboration and investment in best practice across the supply chain
In order to evolve best practice, it needs to be addressed throughout the whole supply chain with active cross industry collaboration. This approach involves industry experts and partners working with bulk material suppliers, seal suppliers, and equipment vendors right through to end users to understand the underlying phenomena of rapid gas decompression. This sort of work can lead to a simple suite of decision making tools that allow equipment suppliers, operational designers, material suppliers to make informed decisions, explore different operating scenarios to predict, avoid or mitigate against equipment failures.
In the past, this type of work has also led to guidelines being developed and embedded in the national and international health and safety guidelines adopted by industry.
Cross sector: Borrowing learnings from other industries
Due to the changing nature of the industry challenge standards will always need to evolve; equipment needs to work longer, require less maintenance and - as already discussed in this article regarding the oil sector - work under more extreme pressures and temperatures. Guidelines and standards need to plan for current and future needs including new applications, evolving technologies and shifting regulatory compliance such as carbon capture laws.
While internal training and industry collaboration is crucial to establishing best practice and filling the knowledge gap, leveraging other industries success factors and applying them in an oil and gas context can accelerate their implementation. Discussing and exploring different approaches with different companies in different sectors to understand where lessons can be applied to the oil and gas industry with be pivotal to the sustainability of best practice.
Access to know-how is the key to sustainable standards
The industry needs access to know-how from different sources be they external trainers, or other sectors for any new capabilities and best practice to be sustainable. Combining successful models from various industries as well as finding completely new ways of doing things is part of this transformation. Business models also need to change to be more collaborative so that different parts of the supply chain can work together with shared values and goals, rather than in a competitive or adversarial manner. And, only after a threefold strategic approach is taken should the development and provision of best practice for engineering solutions.