The knowledge bank - free guidelines aid health and safety

Materials World magazine
28 May 2013

The oil and gas industry has a long history of publishing guidelines and codes of practice to improve safety and environmental performance. Three years on from the Macondo blowout, Oil and Gas UK, the representative body for the UK offshore oil and gas industry – a not-for-profit organisation that was created from the original UK Offshore Operators Association – has published the UK’s first comprehensive set of guidelines to describe best practice for maintaining well integrity throughout the lifecycle for all types of well drilled to exploit naturally occurring hydrocarbons. This is the culmination of two years’ work by a group of more than 20 industry experts meeting at regular intervals under the direction of the Well Lifecycles Practices Forum.

Fundamental to the Guidelines was the need to document good practice to help the industry meet the requirements of the Offshore Installations and Wells (Design and Construction) Regulations, which require the well operator to ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, there can be no unplanned escape of fluids from the well. The 132-page document was comprehensively peer reviewed before publication and explains in simple and easy-to-understand terms what operators need to do to demonstrate ‘as low as reasonably practicable’ compliance.

Oil and Gas UK membership is restricted to oil and gas operating companies, exploration companies and service companies, and is not open to individuals or consultancies. Although member companies can access published guidelines free of charge, anyone else has to pay a modest fee. As one of the organisation’s stated aims is ‘promoting open dialogue within and across all sectors of the industry on topics that influence ... safety, environmental and skills issues, and brokering solutions’, this raises the question as to whether information that enhances safety and integrity shouldn’t be available to all, free of charge.

This asks if there is such a thing as value of information, and if so, how to quantify it. All data costs money to collect and collate, but what surprises me is how much of it is freely available on the web. Indeed, the World Wide Web was developed by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 1990s precisely for this purpose. However, alongside the open access content there is much material that is pay-to-view, or only available through subscription. Examples include IOM3’s IMMAGE reference database of scientific and engineering literature for the minerals industry, and the OnePetro online library of technical literature for the oil and gas industry. Given that authors who submit technical papers to scientific and engineering journals do so to promote knowledge and learning (not to begrudge them a little kudos), but never for financial reward, some might argue that such information should be free-to-all. But there is a cost associated with the administration of these online libraries, just as there is with Oil and Gas UK’s publications. Not only that, in a strange way, information that has been paid for can sometimes appear to be more reliable than something given away for nothing.

It has been said that in today’s internet age we are information rich but question poor – that is, no matter how readily available the data, if you do not ask the right questions then you are not going to be any wiser. But if you are responsible for well integrity and don’t comply with these guidelines, one way or another you are definitely going to end up poorer.