Refinery Records Mean Safety First

Tuesday, August 5, 2014 @ 07:08 PM gHale

By Gregory Hale
Refinery safety remains paramount as production continues its upward swing as equipment and people end up pressed to increase a facility’s capabilities.

It is no secret with new technologies for fracking and drilling that are giving a boost to regions such as the Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies are processing more barrels of crude oil than at any time, U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) numbers show.

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That is a clear indicator that automation technology works, but as capacity continues its rise, safety needs to remain a top priority.

“As we push capacity of a process to its designed limits or beyond, it’s critical to consider many aspects, including the process itself, the new settings to maintain the process under control, potential changes in alarm and safety system settings and many more,” said ABB safety expert Luis Duran.

“Although it is a fact that the process industries must accept some degree of risk, risk needs to be managed to an acceptable level by introducing risk reduction methods, starting with appropriate process hazard analysis and management of change,” Duran said.

That could mean with an increase in production and working to maximize capabilities, users may need to reassess what is happening with the process and to see if they need to make any changes to ensure a safer environment.

“In discussing the safety of a given manufacturing facility, let’s say a refinery, for any particular hazard, we normally consider their severity and frequency, at some point I typically ask plant operators ‘has there been any change in your operational profile?’” Duran said.

“Assuming that the risk profile of that refinery is known, changes such as processing rates, feedstock or maintenance turnaround schedule and even the growth of neighboring communities could impact the level of risk and affect the risk reduction and mitigation strategies.”

The numbers show there are changes at refineries.

Although the number of operating U.S. refineries has fallen from 254 in 1982 to 139 last year, EIA data show their combined capacity increased during that time — from 16.1 million barrels per day to 17.7 million.

U.S. refineries processed 16.8 million barrels per day for the weeks ending July 11 and July 18, eclipsing the prior record set in the summer of 2005. The amount is up 2 percent from a year ago and 5 percent from two years ago.

The increases are not likely to change as U.S. oil production should increase next year, ensuring steady supplies for the nation’s refineries. While gasoline prices remain high, Americans are using more petrol for their vehicles, which continues to hike U.S. demand for petroleum products.

“Given the increase in domestic demand, rising exports and expanded refinery capacity,” the EIA report said, “recent record refinery runs may soon be surpassed.”

“As we increase production rates to historical records, companies’ safety culture, work processes and technologies need to remain in place to make the production facilities an acceptable place to work and a responsible neighbor in our communities,” Duran said.

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