High Risk on the High Seas


marine risk energy industry

Risk managers in the oil and gas industry must protect against the threats that vessels pose to their offshore assets located in marine environments, from hydrocarbon pipelines that traverse miles of navigable waterways to oil rigs and other marine assets scattered across remote locations.

Establishing an effective real-time risk monitoring program can be expensive, however, diverting resources from the core business in a very competitive market. Many operators are now taking a more economical, data-driven approach, using solutions that combine a variety of sensor inputs into a centralized risk management platform operated by shoreside teams. These inputs include radar, camera, weather monitor and VHF communications, in addition to the Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals that vessels routinely transmit and that have been used for over a decade to improve vessel safety and logistics. With this common operational view of all vessel activity, shoreside teams can then assess risks to pipelines, cables, offshore platforms and other fixed marine structures, and use powerful alerting tools to mitigate these risks in real time.

Vessel Threats to Submerged Pipelines

While many pipelines are suitably marked on navigational maps to warn vessel crews of their presence, sometimes this is insufficient to avoid collisions.

Pipelines can be damaged when vessels drop items (usually anchors or anchor chains) onto a section of the submerged asset. Vessels can also damage pipelines when they “spud,” which is a form of barge anchoring that involves driving long pilings into the mud. When vessels collide with an offshore platform or other ships and then sink, this too can damage the pipelines below.

Any of these incidents could have severe consequences. A pipeline strike near a rig could be a safety threat to the rig crew. If it leads to a spill, the incident could jeopardize the entire operation. Even if there is no immediate damage, each incident creates uncertainty and may require that the asset be shut down pending a full assessment. Pipeline damage can lead to expensive unplanned surveys and repairs and might even shut down the waterway. This can be especially problematic in inland waterways with heavy vessel traffic. Even worse, there might be serious environmental impacts, along with injuries or even deaths, followed by a lengthy process of investigations and legal actions.

Historically, monitoring vessel activities near an operator’s pipeline was limited to the random sightings of threats during overflights or when a field technician or surveyor happened to come across a vessel during routine work activity. In some cases, vessels have knowingly impacted a submerged pipeline and caused significant damage, and the pipeline operator had no idea who was responsible or when the pipeline was damaged.

Vessel Threats to Rigs and Other Remote Assets

Vessels are a critical part of operations, but they can also pose a major risk for organizations managing floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) units, rigs, and other offshore drilling and production assets. There is no room for error offshore, especially where safety is concerned, and even with stable oil prices and favorable weather, unexpected operational threats can easily upend economic models. A 2016 study by Kimberlite International Oilfield Research estimated that just 1% of unplanned downtime in a year can cost organizations more than $5 million.

There are two types of vessels operating in the waters near an asset: those that have been contracted to support the asset, and those that must be kept away from it. Both types of vessels can bring an operation to a standstill if the specific risks associated with them are not addressed. While collisions in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean are most likely to occur between tankers or offshore supply vessels (OSVs), a July 2018 study by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management found that the incidents that lead to oil spills are most likely to be between vessels and platforms.

Oil & Gas UK has also stressed this danger, particularly from passing vessels. According to the trade association’s February 2010 Guidelines for Ship/Installation Collision Avoidance, while only a small percentage of reported collisions in the U.K. were caused by passing vessels, they were likely to be traveling at high enough speed for impact energy to be significant, even if the vessel was relatively small. A report on ship/platform collision incidents from the U.K.’s Health & Safety Executive (UK HSE) government agency also found “the kinetic energy possessed by passing cargo vessels and tankers may result in even a glancing blow causing major structure damage.”

This threat from passing vessels continues to grow: The U.S. Coast Guard said in its October 2018 report Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook that today’s “larger vessels and increased demands on the marine transportation system have escalated the risk of collisions, allisions, groundings, security and environmental incidents.”

Until recently, it was assumed that risk mitigation options were limited. As the UK HSE noted in its ship/platform collision incident database report, while the potential for a passing vessel to collide with an installation is, to a large extent, beyond the control of the installation operator and its attendant standby vessel, it could still be possible to influence an errant vessel’s actions if timely enough warnings are provided. Traditional collision monitoring and warning programs are often ineffective. They typically use radar “guard rings” that, if too large, flood watch-standers with false alarms. If the rings are too small, then risks cannot be identified soon enough to mitigate them. The process of warning vessels is also challenging and has generally included trying to make VHF/radio contact while also dispatching a standby vessel or helicopter to a position between the threat and the platform.

Alternatives for Monitoring Risk

Modern risk monitoring platforms have attempted to improve upon traditional methods. Today’s platforms incorporate all required data sources into a shared display and include analytical reporting tools while also providing access to historical data. These platforms enable operators to configure and issue automated alerts using parameters they define based on each asset’s unique risk profiles. For large operators, these centralized platforms take advantage of hardware deployed across their geographically dispersed assets to improve overall monitoring coverage and plug threat-assessment gaps. Incorporating additional location-specific, real-time data from each asset creates a common operational view that improves overall situational awareness.

Some operators have adequate processes and resources to deploy their own shoreside AIS-based monitoring programs as well as experienced personnel who can focus exclusively on determining—and then initiating—mitigating actions. This dedicated staff can monitor the huge influx of information that comes with a comprehensive monitoring program, while also investigating and responding to triggered alerts.

Other operators find that it is more effective to outsource their risk monitoring and evaluation program to a third-party shoreside operation that monitors live data feeds around the clock and is specially trained to communicate only validated risks to offshore teams. Third-party providers also eliminate discrepancies in risk management training, team size and responsiveness across all platforms as policies and procedures can be applied more consistently across all assets and there is generally much earlier awareness about threats so that risk mitigation actions can be launched more quickly.

Monitoring Programs in Action

Recently, for example, a major U.S. pipeline operator implemented an AIS-based risk management program after acquiring multiple hydrocarbon pipeline segments throughout Louisiana. In many locations, the pipelines crossed navigable waterways, and an immediate concern was how to protect these newly acquired assets from damage caused by vessel anchor drags or spudding.

The Louisiana waterways are some of the busiest commercial maritime routes in the world, yet just a few feet below the water is a network of pipelines carrying natural gas and petroleum products to and from the energy-rich Gulf of Mexico. According to the Greater Lafourche Port Commission, an estimated 63,000 miles of pipelines are located in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and within the state waters of Louisiana. As the host of the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), Port Fourchon alone sees approximately 270 large supply vessels traverse its channels daily, and 1.15 million barrels of crude oil are transported through the port via pipelines.

To protect its pipelines from the threats posed by this vessel traffic, the operator worked with a third-party provider to develop its risk management program. The first step was to incorporate pipeline maps into the vessel-tracking tool. Next, alerting parameters and criteria were established, informed by historical data about vessel speed and time spent near pipeline segments and other factors that signal a potential threat that should be explored further. Automated alerts were configured, and the monitoring program was launched.

Almost immediately after deploying the monitoring program, watch-standers were alerted to a vessel nearing one of the operator’s hydrocarbon pipeline segments in the Intracoastal Waterway. The tugboat suddenly made a hard-left turn into Bayou Perot, catching the attention of the shoreside team, which began actively monitoring the tugboat’s AIS location and speed data. Within a few minutes, the vessel stopped on the southern bank, directly above the pipeline hazard zone.

At this point, the team had learned that the vessel was under new ownership and was able to locate the correct contact information and reach the dispatcher who had sent the tugboat to that location to spud. When advised of the pipeline below, the dispatcher immediately redirected the vessel to a safe location. Less than 45 minutes transpired between the time the tugboat entered the risk zone and when it exited.

Continuous Improvement

A key method for improving a basic AIS-based risk mitigation program is to ensure that safety messages can be sent directly to the wheelhouse of any vessels heading on a course that will take them dangerously close to an asset. This is done by deploying a device called an AIS Aid to Navigation (ATON) and programming it to proactively notify nearby vessels of an asset’s location. When a vessel approaches a fixed structure or a point that will place it above submerged pipelines, the ATON provides an additional way to warn its crew to change course.

Analytical reporting is also critical for continuous improvement of risk management processes and procedures, and it requires ongoing access to information about historical vessel positions, incidents and near misses as well as all triggered alerts. Such analysis gives organizations the information they need to assess program efficiency and incident response performance, using key performance indicators (KPIs). By measuring and reporting on KPIs, operators can know, for instance, whether certain vessels are repeatedly encroaching on hazard zones or failing to collaborate with watch teams to mitigate their risk to assets. The KPI information can be used to fine-tune the risk management program, which might include allocating special attention to vessels that need additional outreach and education.

Once operators establish best practices for one set of assets, they should apply these best practices across their entire portfolio of critical infrastructure. The information is also valuable for generating a high standard of proof in the event of litigation. Plus, all lessons learned from investigations and follow-ups can be shared with other stakeholders, thus improving risk management for all.

Risk assessments should be revisited as threat factors change. Operators with assets in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, will be seeing new vessel traffic patterns as a result of Mexico opening its oil sector to foreign investment. There also may be emerging vessel dynamics now that additional shipping routes have been established between the Panama Canal and U.S. ports and as the first oil-exporting terminal is completed off the coast of Corpus Christi, Texas, to support the world’s largest crude-carrying vessels.

Looking Ahead

The use of centralized shoreside risk monitoring and mitigation will continue to evolve. In the North Atlantic, there is the growing threat of asset damage from floating icebergs, for example, and in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, many assets are still vulnerable to pirate vessels, although the number of attacks has gone down in recent years. Operators can monitor and mitigate such threats by using the same centralized shoreside monitoring strategies employed to protect rigs, pipelines and other assets from workboats and fishing fleets. These risk monitoring concepts and technologies could also be applied to protect other types of offshore assets, such as wind-farm infrastructure.

In addition, other types of data inputs can be added to form a more complete picture, whether from drones and light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors, or from forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras or other instrumentation.

Centralized asset monitoring platforms provide a data-driven way to mitigate risk and protect marine assets from vessels and other potential threats. Vessel operators can use KPI reporting and measurement to ensure that best practices are always improving. This gives them the insights they need to continuously enhance situational awareness and the efficiency and effectiveness of their risk management and mitigation efforts across all assets.


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About the Author

Mat Castaneda is the maritime asset protection account manager, global data solutions, at Oceaneering.


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