A more proactive and sustainable approach to reducing emissions from equipment leaks is needed. Here’s how digitalization can help prevent leaks altogether.
The oil and gas industry uses refineries and other industrial facilities as its 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 (GHG) 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 their “dirty industry” reputation by launching 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 International 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.
However, 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 are one of the most common reasons that leaks occur. 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.
On average, the industry’s bolted joint leak rate is a whopping 10 percent. This means that for every 100 bolted joints installed, 10 will develop some sort of leak during their use. In turn, these leaks contribute to 170 million metric tons of fugitive greenhouse gas every year. For context, this is the equivalent to the annual emissions of 36 million cars.
Considering the estimated 26.4 million bolted joints that are touched each year during maintenance or construction, applying the industry average 10 percent leak rate would yield 2.64 million bolted joint connection leaks per year. Since each leak releases an average of 64 metric tons of fugitive GHG, the industry could stand to abate nearly 170 million metric tons of emissions simply by ensuring that bolted joints are installed and maintained properly.
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 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 its 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 – however promising they may be – are not being fully implemented beyond perhaps an initial pilot. 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?
Oil and gas operations are commonly found in remote locations far from company headquarters. Now, it's possible to monitor pump operations, collate and analyze seismic data, and track employees around the world from almost anywhere. Whether employees are in the office or in the field, the internet and related applications enable a greater multidirectional flow of information – and control – than ever before.