LOTO Automation in the Upstream Market – Gimme a “P”! …but not an “E”

Whereas LOTO automation has clear benefits in many phases of the downstream and midstream markets, upstream is simply a different animal.  Exploration and Production (E&P) are the two most commonly used descriptions of the upstream market.  LOTO has implications on Production, but really plays a much smaller role in the world of Exploration.

Exploration can be oversimplified as the act of finding the natural resources that can then be lifted from the Earth and used as raw materials in the oil and gas industry.  Granted, through the years environmental and safety regulations have altered the complexion of the upstream market.  Gone are the days when a broken down school bus full of roughnecks rattled up in a cloud of dust and got to drilling.  Now, satellite controlled horizontal drilling rigs reach out and cover huge areas with a minimum of human involvement.  Furthermore, energy isolation issues are very different in a scenario that starts and ends in 30 days or less, and OSHA realizes this.  In OSHA’s energy isolation regulations, 29 CFR, Standard 1910.147, right at the beginning it is stated “This standard does not cover the following:” and the fifth and last item in that list is “Oil and gas well drilling and servicing.”  So, if 1910.147 does not apply to drilling rigs, then us too-smart-for-our-own-britches LOTO automation guys need to pack it up and get out of the oil patch.  And take yer fancy tags with you!  Well, that is not quite the case, since we still have the production portion of Exploration and Production.

In the event that exploration succeeds, and the well begins to produce, then we have resources being lifted from the ground.  Now what?  That’s where gathering and extraction come in.  I recently became acquainted with a guy who works on the northern slope of Alaska in a massive gathering and extraction facility.  They have multiple pads with maybe dozens of wells on each of them, with each well being pumped into a gathering facility.  Downstream from gathering, liquids are separated from gasses, and distinct products (water, crude, condensate, natural gas) are extracted.  Whereas the guy on the drilling rig wants his process to end very quickly (hopefully with a producing well, not the cursed dry hole), the guy on the gathering and extraction facility wants the wells to keep producing forever.  This longer-term endeavor brings into play the oldest profession in the world: maintenance.  What, were you thinking of something else?  And of course, where there’s maintenance, there’s a whole lot of LOTO.  So, here we are, unpacking our bags and pulling our fancy tags out again, hoping to save the huddled masses by reducing the manual effort of handwritten LOTO with our high-falutin’ automation systems.

Now those fancy tags better be able to withstand -40 degree temperatures with a 50 mph wind.  My friend on the northern slope says they are doing fine so far.  Not that I’m going there to check them out, I’ll take his word for it.  I’m from Texas; I can barely handle San Francisco.

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