Far too often these days we’re hearing about oil and gas pipelines giving way to the forces of corrosion. This is an issue that is drawing even more attention because of the combination of an aging infrastructure network, encroachment into urbanized areas and inadequate protection of some sort – be it coatings, cathodic protection, faulty welding, etc. that leads in faulty maintenance.
Add to this the supercharged 24-hour news cycle that we all live with and few incidents are deemed of insufficient interest to cover. The Sept. 9 San Bruno, CA PG&E pipeline disaster – although at this time no specific cause has been cited – is a prime example.
Corrosion is obviously the bread and butter of NACE International and its 23,000 worldwide members. Following the Houston-based association’s annual conference in San Antonio, TX earlier this year, Christopher M. Fowler, Ph.D., corrosion director of UK-based Exova, became NACE International’s new president. A materials expert, Fowler received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 1974 and 1975, respectively; in 1980 he received his doctorate.
Fowler discussed the issue of corrosion at length with P&GJ, a topic that is even more relevant today because let us make no mistake about it: an aging asset infrastructure is the biggest problem facing the pipeline industry.
P&GJ: What is the impact of corrosion to the U.S., considering that many pipelines were built over 50 and 60 years ago?
Fowler: Corrosion is a slow and insidious killer of our nation’s critical infrastructure. Impacts many parts of our lives including ships, railroads, railcars, automobiles, aboveground and underground storage tanks, bridges, airports, airplanes, energy generation and distribution systems, water systems, refineries, offshore oil and gas production, and oil and gas pipelines. It is estimated that corrosion costs the U.S. over $276 billion annually and has over a $3 trillion impact globally.
As these key systems continue to age and are expected to be useful way past their design life (normally 25–30 years), corrosion prevention and mitigation has to be considered. NACE International recommends that corrosion be part of the discussion in the design phase of new structures; however, we know that the majority of the issues that we have to deal with now have been in service for over 25 years. Corrosion is the number one limiting factor in each of these assets.
P&GJ: Why is corrosion (internal and external combined) still the second-leading cause for pipeline failures in the U.S.? Should the Michigan oil spill attributed to a corroded pipe be a wakeup call to the industry?
Fowler: The pipeline industry in recent years has begun to become more proactive regarding corrosion, but there is still much to be done. One of the key challenges is a slow and invisible issue. It is a slow process and it is not a visible priority. Many times corrosion is seen as a maintenance issue. With this mind set, cutting corrosion expenditures is easy to do if you do not appreciate the long-term impact. Corrosion needs to be part of the discussion focusing on asset preservation and pipeline integrity. It is an integral part of the discussion.
P&GJ: What are companies doing to thwart the consequences of corrosion and are their efforts being hampered by the business downturn?
Fowler: It has been interesting to be in the leadership of NACE International over the last few years. During this economic downturn we have experienced tremendous growth. We know that industry has begun training more employees and that there has been a greater reliance on industry standards. NACE International has seen its membership grow by at least 5% each year for the last two years. Ensuring a trained and qualified workforce is vital to addressing corrosion. With trained personnel companies have begun looking at the entire life cycle of the asset to more fully understand the health of the pipeline systems.
P&GJ: When is the time to consider corrosion of pipeline asset?
Fowler: The ideal time would be in the design phase of the project. This is true for any corrosion prevention and mitigation program. However, very few us have that luxury. Many of the assets that people are responsible for are 15–25 years old. So once you become responsible for an asset it is important that you evaluate the current corrosion program and determine what actions are needed. This is the cornerstone of corrosion management.
Corrosion management is the ability to look at the entirety of the pipeline system (age, soil types, environment, protection systems, operating pressure, quality of product, expected life of the asset, etc.) to determine what an appropriate corrosion mitigation and prevention strategy should be.
P&GJ: What resource does NACE International provide that can assist industry in addressing this menace?
Fowler: NACE International is truly the one-stop shop for the pipeline industry’s corrosion concerns. We provide essential corrosion related training for field employees to senior corrosion engineers. We are in the process of developing training for senior management, finance personnel, and key decision makers regarding corrosion. NACE International also provides the standards that have become the guide for the pipeline industry in addressing corrosion and asset preservation.
Other key tools that we provide are: industry-focused conferences, webinars, seminars, and publications. These are great ways of learning from industry and government leaders on addressing corrosion.
P&GJ: What is the greatest opportunity to change the way that corrosion is considered?
Fowler: It is moving from looking at the individual corrosion problems and to begin thinking about asset preservation and corrosion management. We need to understand the total picture and to be able to develop corrosion plans. Corrosion management brings together training, standards, understanding the asset, and developing a life cycle. This moves corrosion from a maintenance to asset preservation and strengthens the focus on corrosion by key decision makers (CFO and CEO).
P&GJ: Where do you see the corrosion industry in ten years? Where do you see NACE International in 10 years?
Fowler: I believe that the need for corrosion professionals is going to increase over the next ten years to address our aging infrastructure. The corrosion industry is at an interesting point. In the U.S. much of the critical infrastructure was built in the 1950s and 1960s and they have begun to reach or exceed their design life and we are asking for more from these assets.
If you think about it, even if we wanted to build brand new, where would we put these new assets (oil and gas pipelines, water treatment facilities, water pipelines, power lines, nuclear power plants, nuclear storage facilities, airports, bridges, dams, a new power grid, and other key infrastructure)?
So, with this mindset, reducing the impact of corrosion is one of the most critical activities of the 21st century. As a nation, we need to be more proactive in addressing corrosion and not waiting for it to fall apart. However, the challenge is that at the same time, the number of professionals in the corrosion industry has been declining. We have begun to see an increase in the number of students attending NACE courses, but the demand is still ahead of the number of students we can produce (over 8,000 students per year are attending NACE courses around the world).
We are working to inform and educate the next generation of corrosion professionals, many of whom are still in high school. Also, the University of Akron is starting a new corrosion degree and this fall, the first class of corrosion engineers will begin taking courses.
P&GJ: There is a growing concern in the industry about the next generation of technical professionals; what is NACE doing to begin to address this for corrosion?
Fowler: NACE International has been working closely with the NACE Foundation to develop a detailed program to begin educating the next generation. We have or will have developed several new courses to address the specific industries that the students may work for upon completing the program. In addition to the University of Akron, we have begun to work with other universities around the world to develop similar programs.
Another area that has to be addressed is educating decision-makers about the importance of corrosion prevention and mitigation and the role that trained and certified personnel play ensuring the safety of these vital assets. A pet project that I have undertaken during my presidency is to increase the number of student sections worldwide. These are great areas for networking and providing guidance for future corrosion professionals.
P&GJ: Do you think there will be an impact on the regulations for onshore pipelines as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf?
Fowler: For many people in government, oil and gas is the issue, not onshore or offshore. And to some degree they are correct. As you know, unfortunately, we recently saw another major spill in Michigan. These incidents show that the industry is not perfect. It is still the most effective transportation mode in the U.S. for oil and gas. However, any failure is too many. The industry is committed to improve and that has been proven over the last few years as the number of failures and the amount of product released has decreased.
So, I do expect some changes in the regulations. I am concerned with some of the discussions on Capitol Hill on the issue. A few congressmen are questioning the use of industry standards for developing regulations. During the Clinton administration, there was direction that agencies should look to use industry standards, when appropriate. The thought process was that the Standards Developing Organizations (SDO) were in a better position to address changes in the industry and offered a wider base of input into the development of the standards.
The key question that a few members of Congress bring up surrounds public
access to the standards-development process and the finished documents. The SDO will be discussing this issue in an upcoming meeting of the Pipeline Standards Development Organizations Coordinating Council (PSDOCC).
Under the ANSI standard development process there are a number of opportunities for members of the public to participate and PSDOCC will develop white papers that lay out the process. Moving away from using industry standards could be very harmful to the industry, government, and ultimately the public. NACE International is committed to working with members of Congress to educate them about the process and the vital role that SDOs play.
P&GJ: NACE International membership has grown dramatically over the last few years to over 23,000; how has NACE grown during the global economic downturn?
Fowler: This is an amazing story. Not only has the membership grown over the last few years, but the annual salary for corrosion professional has risen as well. This is a growth industry that is not very well understood. As industry begins to look for the opportunity to extend the life of their key assets, corrosion becomes the number one limiting factor. With great acknowledgment from industry and government
leaders, corrosion prevention and mitigation are becoming an more important part of the equation.
P&GJ: At the end of your term, how will you be able to determine whether you were successful?
Fowler: At the end of my term success will be measured by the number of new student sections. This is a great opportunity to begin setting the tone for the future of the industry. This will be my legacy.
P&GJ: How did you get into the pipeline industry?
Fowler: My first position was to set up a Sour Service Testing laboratory, following some pipeline failures in the Middle East, and now with the severity of the product (high temperature/high pressure and more H2S) the demand for such services is still growing.
As Fowler noted after the weeklong meeting ended: “This conference was remarkable on many levels. Perhaps the most interesting was that I witnessed students from many nations – Spain, Israel, Germany, and Iraq, for example – working in harmony. Corrosion breaks down more than infrastructure – it breaks down cultural barriers.”