By Mahinaz El Baz

Offshore oil and gas operations are getting  more sophisticated and remote, as it is difficult to access into the equipment under extraordinary conditions in remote subsea and deep-water locations. Besides, the inspection needed to ensure integrity of equipment at distant and deep offshore locations is costly.

Industry experts believe that this lack of visibility can lead to expensive unscheduled maintenance and non-productive time (NPT), oil spills or accidents; resulting from failing equipment. Even small improvements in efficiency can yield significant savings, according to MapR Technologies’ White Paper about Predictive Maintenance in 2015. Improving production efficiency by 10%, for instance, can yield up to $220-260 million bottom-line impact on a single brownfield asset, McKinsey estimates showed.

“Oil and gas companies have a major opportunity to increase efficiency and reduce operational costs through better asset tracking and predictive maintenance. With falling oil prices, companies are facing increasing pressure to reduce operation costs and opt to manage the business more efficiently. Many companies are not operating their assets at optimum production efficiency,” MapR’s paper noted. Despite the current challenging international market dynamics, international oil companies (IOCs) are investing in developing new technologies to raise the efficiency of current inspection and integrity techniques.

Complex Challenges

The increasing energy demand pushed IOCs to intensify their exploration and production (E&P) activities in both onshore and offshore fields. However, things are slightly different in offshore fields, as the use of subsea equipment and systems to produce hydrocarbons has brought new challenges and created demand for more efficient maintenance strategies.

“Subsea systems are often standardized up to a certain level, individually customized, and usually robust solutions to ensure high reliability. The subsea systems often consist of complex equipment designed to perform critical functions and to overcome extreme conditions. Nowadays they are designed to work in increasingly deeper water at more remote locations,” according to Jorge Trejo and Tore Markeset’s paper entitled “Identifying Challenges in the Maintenance of Subsea Petroleum Production Systems”.

Hence, maintaining deep-water equipment requires special attention, due to its exceptional conditions. “Equipment maintenance in deep water or what is referred to in a broader manner as Subsea Integrity Management (IM) in deep water is facing a lot more challenges than a typical onshore development; inherited challenges include but not limited to remote locations, harsh environment, technological challenges and high costs,” Ahmed Mahran, Subsea Development & Integrity Management Professional, told Egypt Oil & Gas.

Mahran further explained that “projects already underway ranging from the Gulf of Mexico to West Africa, have reached almost 3,000 meters under water. With manned diving underwater operations limited to only roughly 180 meters, this has restricted accessibility to subsea infrastructure intervention, inspection, and maintenance to robots commonly referred to as Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV). Similarly, all subsea repairs at such water depth have to be automated. This is only one part of complexity.”

Affirming on Mahran’s opinion, Ahmed Abo Bakr, Subsea Engineer, explained to Egypt Oil & Gas that “equipment installed in deep water are facing more complex challenges than equipment in shallow water. The deep-water maintenance challenges are diverse. Technical factors and economic drive are always there, due to the costly and complex nature of deep-water operations. Yet what comes first is experienced and competent manpower.”

“There are a lot of challenges facing equipment maintenance in deep-water,” Amr Manhawy, General Manager at Seaharvest Oil & Gas Services, told Egypt Oil & Gas. “The main three challenges are harsh working conditions -like High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT) operating environment- access deep-water equipment like wellhead, completion equipment and applying service, in addition to  high cost of maintaining deep-water equipment,” he illustrated.

Egypt’s Additional Challenges

In Egypt’s deep water, companies face additional challenges. “Egypt has been into the deep-water business for a considerable time, and this has helped develop the experienced workforce. But with the recent expansions, the country needs to upgrade its base of skilled and experienced personnel, in order to build on the past  experiences; rather than starting from scratch,” Abo Bakr stated. .

“Another challenge is the intervention cost. This highlights the need of introducing shared economy between deep-water operators in the Mediterranean. Additional challenges manifest in  the coordination between operators to achieve unification and standardization of deep-water systems and components, as such approach will ensure interchangeability of equipment and spare parts, minimizing the maintenance cost and shortening downtimes and shut downs,” Abo Bakr added.

“Moreover, the aging of current systems is considered a challenge. The need for upgrade sometimes is a must. Besides, the sparing strategy needs to be progressive. Imagine having a spare part on shelf for 10 to 15 years, it would probably fail when being used due to long shelf time. Furthermore, incorporating software maintenance management more and more will result in better tracking and effective results,” he said.

One final important aspects that needs development, is “having emergency response scenarios and plans for action in case of major failures, like pipeline or control lines failure for example. Having such plans in place will ensure the reliability of the deep-water production in the country,” Abo Bakr added.

Industry experts believe that challenges related to maintenance of deep-water facilities could be avoided by proper design, as well as by planning, and structured maintenance strategies in the design phase. However, it is a challenge for the IOCs to define maintenance strategies for reducing maintenance cost. Most of the subsea production facilities are customized designs requiring customized tools and equipment for maintenance interventions, according to Jorge Trejo and Tore Markeset’s paper.

Unusual Solutions

The disasters in the Gulf of Mexico have made IOCs think further about installation integrity, security and ecology, as laws and regulations will be implemented focusing on avoiding such events in the future. The companies are currently trying to minimize failures, focusing their strategies on preventive maintenance with the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the installation. “The maintenance strategy should be addressed in the design phase to be able to take the best economic decisions”, Jorge Trejo and Tore Markeset’s paper noted.

Maintenance strategies entail the use of specialized equipment and vessels to carry out subsea interventions. The costs for carrying out preventive maintenance are significantly lower compared to the costs of unpredicted failures, where in some cases it is necessary to reduce or stop the oil production. Moreover, the front-end engineering design (FEED) study is another tool used to evaluate costs and activities in the early phase of the interventions, using divers, as well as to identify critical stages in the field life cycle as a result of corrosion or load fatigue. Failures may be predicted in advance, due to using condition monitoring and analysis of real-time data.

IOCs collect a vast amount of data through sensors in their digital oilfields around the world. A typical offshore production platform can have more than 40,000 data tags, though many may not be connected or used, according to McKinsey estimates. While many companies use oilfield sensors to monitor real-time data on operations. The data is not often stored and analyzed to help predict potential equip­ment problems.

However, such solutions, if applied accurately, they might enable the companies to plan the maintenance interventions and reduce the costly unplanned downtime. Hence, optimizing the subsea maintenance interventions is reducing the use of specialized and costly vessels, the paper added.

“Various techniques are being applied to suit the nature of operation; run to fail and condition-based maintenance as well as preventive, periodic and corrective maintenance are being all incorporated. The deep-water technology is standard and based on redundancy and high reliability, but problems occur with unforeseen events, and such events usually require customized solutions,” Abo Bakr noted.

Expert’s Solutions for Egypt

When asked about the currently implemented maintenance techniques in Egypt’s Mediterranean deep water, Mahran explained that “Egypt’s first deep-water development in West Delta Deep Marine (WDDM) concession in Mediterranean Sea was developed and put on production some 15 years ago in 2003. Since then there has been ongoing subsea inspection contracts and integrity management work. However subsea integrity management operations in Egypt are less developed and are highly affected by cost-cutting measures, mainly due to reluctance to invest on costly maintenance programs, global market conditions, and overdue debts to IOCs.”

“With recent investment and development of multiple mega projects as Zohr in Shorouk concession, North and West Alexandria concessions in West Nile Delta (WND), and North Damietta Concession in East Nile Delta (END), it is clear that there are ongoing efforts to set-up a more in depth integrity management strategy and plans to cover highly critical new subsea assets,” he added.

In the same context, Manhawy mentioned that Egypt is currently using the conventional techniques and applying API standard when it comes to regular maintenance, however “few operators forces the service provider to provide prior-job inspection report to prevent and possible down time.”

New Technologies and Innovative Techniques

The rapid progress of technology such as big data and analytics, sensors, and control systems offers IOCs a chance to automate high-cost, dangerous, or error-prone maintenance tasks in deep water. Most oil and gas operators are starting to capture these opportunities.

There are many ways in which automating maintenance can improve production efficiency. For instance, radio-frequency-identification tagging of equipment, along with the use of other sensors, can help track activity. Tracking, in return, enables applications that can monitor the condition of equipment and support predictive maintenance and automated operations shutdowns. These applications minimize risk of catastrophic failures and process disruptions, while maximizing equipment reliability and production efficiency, according to Mckinsey & Company’s article entitled “Digitizing oil and gas production”.

Another innovative technique is using deep-water pipeline repair robotic systems. “Since there are many requests to repair deep-water pipelines from the IOCs, StatOil and Chevron have developed pipeline repair robotic systems. The pipeline repair robots can work for water depths down to 1,000 meters,” according to Heping Chen’s research paper entitled “Opportunities and Challenges of Robotics and Automation in Offshore Oil & Gas Industry, 2014.

Integrity Strategy Prerequisite to Technology

In Egypt, experts believe that there is a serious intention to apply new technologies in the near future to maximize the efficiency of maintaining deep-water equipment. However, there are other priorities before implementing new technologies.

“The advancement of technology brings new solutions every day. Egypt as well as other countries would benefit from that, especially when it comes to subsea inspection. Accessing more results with lesser costs, but also what Egypt needs more is a national strategy for asset integrity and maintenance. Such strategy is to cover all operators in Egypt and harmonize the activities to ensure better results with less cost,” Abo Bakr highlighted.

On another note, it is essential to “introduce Egypt not only as an emerging gas hub, but also as a deep-water maintenance hub, inviting manufactures and service providers to establish service centers in Egypt to cater for the whole region. This will enable the country to minimize the cost and turnaround time to get needed repairs of deep-water equipment.  Egypt additionally needs to have a strong local supply chain and service providers, to strengthen the response and effectiveness,” Abo Bakr added.

From his side, Mahran agrees with Abo Bakr, as having an integrity management strategy is a priority to be considered before applying new technologies. “Historically, the term integrity management is usually foreseen by operators in Egypt, as the program of inspection during operation with typical integrity programs concentrating around inspection management. Such an inspection management strategy may be well suited for static equipment or structures with good accessibility to conduct visual inspection, cathodic protection (CP) surveys, and ultrasonic testing (UT). However, subsea systems additionally experience highly dynamic loading due to environment combined with internal and external corrosion issues,” he noted.

Mahran further explained that “an integrated integrity management program should employ roles of risk assessment in integrity management planning, and post inspection integrity assessments from a third party; both activities are deemed essential in ensuring risk based integrity assurance, which targets critical components providing justification for each inspection, monitoring, or mitigation activity based on the probability of failure and the consequence for not only personal safety and the environment but also asset availability.”

Role Models

Experts believe that following successful role models can benefit Egypt. “I would suggest applying different methodology. We have to apply the concept of preventive maintenance, especially in the deep water, as the cost of drilling and maintenance is high and any encountered down time is very costly.

Applying preventive maintenance model has proved records worldwide in decreasing the Non Productive Time (NPT) of the rig. We have to add clause in each tender that force any service provider to do certain inspection and tests on their equipment, while being in base by a third party, prior to sending it offshore. This will decrease the cost of the equipment maintenance and decreasing the NPT,” Manhawy highlighted.

From his side, Mahran believes that the North Sea experience is one of the best models for Egypt to simulate. “Global subsea integrity management market is well developed and supported by various service providers in certain geographical areas as North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and Australia,” he said.

“Similar to subsea project developments scheme, the most nearby model that Egypt could follow is the North Sea experience at both sides of United Kingdom Continental Shelf (UKCS) and Norwegian Continental Shelf (NCS). Partly as a result of offshore incidents, both examples have further developed and matured on regulators, operators and suppliers sides,” he added.

In the light of deep-water maintenance challenges, industry experts recommend having an integrity management strategy in Egypt to be able to raise the efficiency of managing the subsea facilities. Moreover, there is an opportunity to utilize predictive analytics in Egypt, which will help identifying when equipment and assets are likely to fail or need service, and to perform preventive maintenance to minimize costly, unsched­uled downtime.