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Planning for Emergencies
Paul Hughes, Connectors Product Manager, Hydratight The tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon brought about many important findings, but none with greater impact than that of public opinion. Never before had an event been quite so glaringly in the spotlight, taking public scrutiny to a new level. A ship within sight of the stricken rig made the first public reports and details and pictures were online within hours - a level of interest that continued until the spillage was finally capped, many weeks later.

Public opinion reached fever pitch as stricken communities and politicians demanded to know why the repair operation was taking so long. The industry, of course, knew exactly why the repair was taking so long. It is one thing to know what needs to be done, quite another to get the elements in place to achieve it. Bringing expert manpower, hardware and ships together isn’t a matter of calling a local supplier and ordering them for the day after tomorrow. The public, in its understandable naivety, might believe it is, but in a case like this express - truly express - delivery might mean months. The companies involved found out the hard way just how powerful the public, backed by government, can be. Stray comments cost jobs, billions were allocated to paying for damage and billions more lost as share prices tumbled. Governments globally started to step up their anti-pollution laws and instituted major policy changes to make sure, in the time-abused phrase, it could never happen again. The sad fact is that despite everyone’s best efforts, accidents happen. It's their scale and how quickly you handle them that keeps the public on your side - or not.

Major companies, especially potential polluters like oil and chemical companies, have always had contingency plans for disaster management. In the past, everyone knew the time frames involved and when something failed, waiting two months for a replacement was expected - it would, after all, take that long for the other elements of the repair to be assembled. Deepwater Horizon changed that: damage limitation has now become the number one priority when something happens - and not only limitation of environmental damage, but also of injury to reputation, stock price and credibility.

Companies offering services to the large operators understand the critical link between doing and being seen to be doing, and many now operate pooled-repair operations, to make sure response times are shorter than would have been the case even five years ago. In an industry as vast as oil exploration, speed of delivery far outweighs cost. Hydratight’s mechanical connectors are not inexpensive and an example for a 36 inch pipe can weigh several tonnes; but when a repair ship costs USD 2 million a week to hire and an emergency repair means saving or losing billions in lost production and reputation, cost takes a distant second place to speed of delivery.

In the past the problem was that supply companies could rarely offer speedy delivery. Assembling the elements - the steel billets, the machining expertise, delivery, preparation and so on - might take weeks, or even several months. So companies had no choice but to buy ultra-critical repair components finished and ready to use.

Tying a large sum of money in emergency stock is clearly right, in some cases: one Hydratight customer faced a simple equation when determining whether or not to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of our connectors in the hope they might never be used: have the equipment to hand and complete repairs reasonably quickly, or lose up to 40 per cent of its national electricity generating capacity while a repair was prepared.

But for most, a guarantee of full attention and rapid delivery - within a couple of weeks, say - is enough; which is why several companies, including ours, have set up what are effectively emergency repair ‘clubs’. Rather than making and delivering finished connectors and the services to install them, resources and repair plans are simply allocated in advance and kept in constant readiness for fast implementation. Today, quoting a couple of months for large component delivery is not acceptable. By keeping stocks of steel billets in various sizes and tying other suppliers into the chain, the raw materials for any size of connector are always on hand, as are the machining specialists to turn them into high precision components - so we can offer greatly reduced delivery times. Our Emergency Pipeline Repair System, as we call it, also offers members the guarantee of priority assistance and regular dry runs, to ensure an emergency order would be treated as such and delivered on time. Other clubs operate in similar ways, tying customers to resources and guaranteeing priority assistance. Companies joining such clubs obviously need to be have their likely needs assessed, so emergency procedures can be instituted knowing the materials and services are on hand to cover any demand.

Though ours isn’t the only company offering such a service, we effectively form a vital part of the chain: we don’t supply repair ships, for example, but others do. Our expertise is in weldless connectors and machining, so larger emergency repair operations than ours often come to us for that critical part of their service. They promise reduced prep time by tying ships, repair crews and expert teams such as ours into their offerings, knowing we can fulfil our part in a specific timeframe. Many of the big operators - most of whom run their own repair regimes - already subscribe to our service, for similar reasons. The result is that where large-scale repairs took weeks or months to assemble and position tools and crews from a cold start with the right equipment, the repair operation now hits the ground running.

You might ask what the difference is between repair clubs, and simply building connectors for stock, to sell on demand? Wouldn’t that be even faster? The answer is… not necessarily. If one part of the repair chain didn’t have large components to hand, the entire repair might grind to a halt. Better to trade ultimate speed for reliability and a more achievable timeframe for the overall project. With EPRS – in fact with any major project - the objective is to be ready when all the other components of a repair are ready; not simply to be ready first.

The other factor that makes building for stock unwieldy is variation: we make mechanical connectors in literally dozens of variations in sizes, from one inch to 42 inch and pressure ratings (up to 10,000psi), so it isn’t possible to cover all eventualities. Other repair companies have similar problems and time and equipment restraints.

So when customers who have chosen not to join what are effectively insurance programmes place an order, they have the same delays anyone unprepared for an emergency might have - and the same increased cost of rapid response from a cold start; job assessment, design, plan approval, price approval and so on. Companies joining club initiatives go through much of this on joining, so this essential part of prep time is also greatly reduced. These days the industry must work on vastly-foreshortened timescales but with the same effectiveness. The emergency club format allows companies operating them to fulfil their obligation to customers in distress well within the overall timeline of the repair.

In other words, by advance preparation, each element of a repair is completed within a far shorter schedule than would previously have been possible, shortening the timeline overall, with subsequent reductions in downtime and production losses. Even more important, as we have seen, the emergency is seen to have a very high priority for the teams involved, since the operation is mobilised far more quickly than might otherwise have been the case.

In these days of engineering and political expediency, it’s hard to put a price on being seen to be doing the right thing, but it is easy to see from the bottom line the results of not doing so.