The Shah Deniz Alpha platform

Today, when the world’s attention is focused on Shah Deniz Phase 2, the existing Shah Deniz Alpha platform - continues to operate at full capacity. Each day this offshore platform produces 966 million cubic feet of gas. It has operated for more than 500 days without a shut-down and there have been no major safety issues during this period. Turkhan Ahmad visited the platform to talk to some of the people who are making this happen.

Etibar Zulfugarov, a control room technician, is one of nearly 150 people working on the installation. He does a critical job. Sitting in front of a large panel equipped with numerous monitors and multi-function keyboards (including an emergency shutdown system), his brief is to ensure that every element on the platform, works round-the-clock and gas travels safely from the wells to Sangachal terminal.

This is the type of job that requires ability and experience and also highly focused concentration able to pick up the tiniest change. “Specifically,” says Etibar who is in his seventh year on the platform, “we must ensure that well parameters do not ever exceed accepted levels or limits.”

Etibar and his back-up colleagues are therefore in constant communication with the terminal to assure that all actions are aligned and all rules and procedures followed. Any change is coordinated with the terminal prior to starting the job.

To understand the centrality of this role, imagine a situation where there is a restriction on gas delivery for some technical or commercial reason in the terminal. It is the control room technicians on the Shah Deniz Alpha platform who would push on the button to gradually close off a well and manage all well pressures to avoid any negative consequences. 

Guarding wells

Yet another vital job done by control room technicians is to manage annuli pressure – the void between casings and the equipment immediately surrounding it. There are three annuli per six active wells in the Shah Deniz field. These annuli require precise fluid pressure management to avoid well tubulars or equipment failure. 

Each annulus has safe operating pressure limits and the role of an experienced control room technician is to manage pressures so as to avoid damaging a well or future production. 

Since a main risk at the platform is loss of well control due to a well integrity breakdown , at Shah Deniz Alpha, the well integrity critical processes are overseen by the operations shift team leaders (OSTL). Watching the trends displayed on the monitors in the control room, an OSTL makes sure that the wells operate within the agreed parameters and any intervention is carried out by a competent technician. If the well is opened too quickly it is a signal of potential problems with the annuli or down-hole. It is a control room technician’s job then to act according to the OSTL’s instructions. 

For all the control room technicians, as for everyone on the platform, any non- routine activity starts with a risk assessment. No process or personal safety risk is tolerated. This may sound drastic but, according to John Redpath, offshore installation manager for the Shah Deniz platform, it is the reason for the platform’s success. “There are number of high level risks on the platform. We need to be on constant alert.” 

Curbing the risks

One of the major risks on Shah Deniz platform is related to the types of wells and their management. Over the last three years the Shah Deniz team has done a lot to establish a rigorous system to manage the wells safely. For John, it is the annulus pressure on the wells which is the biggest challenge. “There is quite an intense programme that we’re going through now to manage the pressure within the annulus on the wells,” he says. 

As part of its practice the team has developed a dual sign off method. One technician follows procedure and a second signs a seal to show that the procedures have been followed. “This means that when technicians top up annuli or perform bleed down as a pair, they both have to be competent,” says John. “We make sure that every staff member has due competence.” This dual sign off process was recognized by the BP group safety and operational risk (S&OR) department during an audit in 2012 and rated one of the most rigorous systems seen by S&OR worldwide. 

Since throughput at the platform was upgraded in 2012, vibration has become another issue. This phenomenon primarily affects the pipe work from the wells. To understand the scale of its impact the team has undertaken a rigorous vibration monitoring programme on the wells, on the flow lines and on the associated equipment. 

To minimize the risk, some modifications were made on affected flow lines to reduce the vibration. At the same time, the Shah Deniz team developed an ongoing vibration monitoring programme that is deployed onshore. The monitoring is done by trained staff who go out and physically monitor vibration with a handheld unit and then download the data to a computer and send the feedback onshore. 

Another major risk on the platform that also requires rigorous monitoring involves cables insulation integrity issues caused by UV deterioration and fire resistance. Following seven years’ uninterrupted use, the cables on the Alpha platform were found to be substandard. According to John, the risk factor here is high, because if there is a gas leak and one of the cables had deteriorated to the point that it could give a spark, there is a risk of explosion. “We now have a plan to replace the safety critical daaged cables on the platform in a systematic way by the first quarter of 2016,” says John. 

Intense training

The Shah Deniz platform management is also working continuously to improve performance on the installation. One way is by investing heavily in staff training and development. “We have a systematic and individual approach to training,” says Nadir Efendiyev, Operations Team Leader for the Shah Deniz platform. 

To improve staff capability and performance, the management of the platform has been applying effective training tools. According to Nadir, on-the-job training has proven the most effective way to inculcate new concepts and ideas. “This training takes place in a normal working situation using the actual tools, equipment, documents or materials that trainees will use when fully trained,” he explains. 

A good example has been mastering the ‘decision tree’ tool developed by the Shah Deniz platform coaches. The tool is based on a ‘well operating envelope’ – a guideline for running the wells on Shah Deniz. It contains historic data on any issue related to the wells such as annulus management or leak on any annulus. “If there is any problem in a well the decision tree helps us to make proper assessment of the well and to act adequately,” says Nadir. “It is a lot easier and safer to do the job if you have fully competent staff.” 

During the first module of the training programme, employees gain office experience by participating in discussions and decision-making process and absorbing the subtleties of well management. In the second, practical part, employees physically experience a process of topping-up during which they learn how to pressurize annuli by placing an anti-freeze and anti-corrosion agent called MEG into an annulus. They also learn how to bleed-down – release the stored energy by depressurizing the annuli to its limit. 

Vugar Hajiyev, a relatively new production technician on the platform, has participated in a number of these weekly decision tree exercises and feels more confident now. “It provides us with deeper insight on well operation and suggests a specific action during any problematic situation,” he says. 

Today, thanks to such systematic training and individual development, it is not just the offshore installation manager or operations team leader who decides whether to initiate a well kill operation or continue to operate until permissible limits are reached. It is also a control room technician who can contribute to what is, after all, a high level operational decision.