Known for being warm and welcoming, Central American culture may have a little less of a personal “bubble” than some other cultures, so, as one can imagine, a global pandemic may cause significant difficulty for “business as usual.” That being said, high-pressure pipelines keep operating, and their integrity management does not become any less important.
At the end of January 2020, our region – consisting of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean – was only hearing of isolated COVID-19 cases, and only a few travel restrictions were being implemented. Little did we know that one month later, the pandemic would also strike in Mexico and other surrounding countries: land borders would close, and commercial flights were reduced to few and far between. Having just been awarded an in-line inspection of several hydrocarbon loading and offloading lines in four terminals in Guatemala and Honduras – with execution starting in the following months – it was now time to find a way to communicate seamlessly in order to ensure a successful inspection – without the all-too-common in-person meetings. Generally, vital information about the asset is communicated in person, and inspections are planned on-site at face-to-face meetings. But now, the operators in Guatemala and Honduras; ROSEN’s sales managers, technical solutions lead in Nicaragua and project manager in Puebla, Mexico; operations and field personnel in Veracruz, Mexico; and other key functions in Mexico City and Houston all had to work out the details remotely. And that is something that works inherently against Latin American culture; the project would go on regardless.
Although the logistics and distances involved in this project were significant enough, we do feel we should tell you a bit about the inspection project itself. The ten offloading lines to be inspected for metal loss were located inside the terminal. The lines themselves, travelling along piers to connect to ships for the further transport of medium, were eight-, ten-, twelve- and 16-inch pipelines. Some 80% of the pipelines had never been inspected before, raising big question marks about their condition, both in terms of cleanliness and integrity status, while increasing the need for inspection. To reduce the operations of the project, the operator and ROSEN devised a strategy that would temporarily join the relatively short lines to require less on-site equipment, such as launchers and receivers. Not only does this mitigate operational risk and facilitate coordination, it also reduces overall cost.
The planned in-line inspection (ILI) was an ultrasonic wall thickness (UT) inspection to assess any metal loss. Even this was a rarity, as the trend in this region is very much reliant on magnetic flux leakage (MFL) technology for any metal loss inspections. Every technology has its pros and cons: UT must have a liquid couplant, making it generally not suitable for gas pipelines. Plus, it is more sensitive than its heavy-duty opposite, MFL, meaning pipeline cleanliness is essential for a successful ILI. However, understanding the possible benefits of UT as well as its restrictions, the operator chose the technology for its ability to provide direct assessment and better precision in identifying anomalies. The required cleaning campaign was completed, with seawater being chosen as a propellant for the inspection tool and the liquid couplant required by the UT technology.
The ILI tool performed according to specifications, and run conditions were exceptional. The data collected was used for a variety of evaluations, including a fitness-for-purpose assessment and a corrosion growth assessment. These evaluations allowed ROSEN to prepare a recommended maintenance plan for the short term, a five-year maintenance plan for the future safe operation of the lines and an overall integrity management plan that included a 5-year interval for additional inspections. From this, the operator is able to make targeted integrity management decisions for efficient future operation.
To ensure the project ran smoothly, ROSEN coordinated online teleconferences to the extent needed, ensuring everyone involved in different cities and countries (USA, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras) was available at all times.
All commercial issues were discussed by phone until agreed by both parties, and contracts were signed first digitally, then physically; a process to properly accomplish this was implemented between both parties. In addition, technical issues were discussed to provide technical assistance and guidance. Given that some of these pipelines had never been inspected, making sure everyone involved was up to date on both the asset and the inspection plan was vital.
With close coordination between the sales manager/technical solution lead and the project manager, as well as operations personnel, we were able to have continuous online communication, ensuring proper preparation of all inspection tools. This communication extended to the operator to provide guidance regarding the completion of pipeline modifications, trap/spools construction and the installation needed for the execution of the inspection. Many pictures, videos and drawings were sent back and forth between the operator and ROSEN experts to ensure any alterations on both the asset and the ILI tools would run smoothly and were properly considered.
Of course, when it came time to execute the inspection project, ROSEN personnel needed to be on-site, travelling form Veracruz to Honduras and Guatemala while complying with all COVID-19 travel requirements. Even the mobilization of the tools themselves took longer than “normal” because commercial transport between countries was severely reduced during this time.
WHAT WE LEARNED
After a successful inspection campaign, it was time to look back at our first “remotely coordinated” inspection.
Working in a coordinated manner and utilizing today’s communications platforms and technologies to maintain continuous communication – internally as well as with the operator – turned into a win-win situation for both parties. In the end, a huge amount of technical competence was transferred from ROSEN to the operator to prepare these assets for a successful ILI, ultimately building on the already strong partnership between the two. And, although we do still prefer face-to-face meetings, we are happy we were able to complete this project successfully while reducing the risk of infection for all involved personnel.