“Eye of fire”: What the industry can learn from the PEMEX incident

On July 2, the ocean was on fire.

At least, that was what it looked like: A now-viral video posted on social media showed footage from a helicopter, of three ships attempting to douse flames that appeared to be emerging from the Gulf of Mexico, near a PEMEX offshore oil platform.

The shocking video led to widespread criticism from people all over the world, even as Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and PEMEX executives rushed to clarify that the blaze – dubbed an “eye of fire” by social media – had not been caused by an oil spill, and called it an “unusual accident”.

In a brief statement, PEMEX said, “An electrical storm with heavy rain occurred in the platform area of ​​the Ku asset, which caused the necessary pneumatic pump gas turbocompression equipment to go out of operation. for the production of wells.

At the same time, a leak was detected in the 12” pneumatic pumping pipeline that feeds the wells of the Ku-C platform; the gas outside the pipe migrated from the seabed to the surface and due to the electric shocks and heavy rains, the fire broke out on the sea surface.”

According to the company, the fire took five hours to put out, and did not cause any major environmental damage.

A screenshot from the now-viral video of the fire near PEMEX’s offshore oil platform

However, incidents like these aren’t exactly new to PEMEX: A report published by the Statista Research Department found that approximately 100 people died between 2010 and 2017 as a result of fires or explosions attributable to PEMEX, with one of the highest death tolls at the time registered in 2013, when an explosion at the company’s offices caused at least 37 deaths. In January 2019, an explosion caused by attempted fuel theft from a PEMEX pipeline caused the deaths of 137 people, and the injuries of at least a few dozens more.

Coming back to the present, the “eye of fire” incident has led to debate about the environmental impact caused by the petrochemicals industry – a statement released by Greenpeace, supported by the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA), has called for PEMEX to release a detailed study of the fire’s environmental impact, and prepare a plan for repairing the damage caused.

More urgently, the incident has also led to deep discussion about the industry’s process and operations safety. What’s currently lacking, and what must be done to rectify this?

Occupational hazards in the O&G

It seems like an understatement, almost, to say that the oil & gas industry has numerous environmental, health and safety hazards, in large part due to the toxic chemicals that are a mainstay of the industry.

 The most prevalent operational and safety hazards found in the industry include:

  • Process hazards, such as leaks, spills, malfunctioning equipment, corrosion, and metal fatigue
  • Chemical hazards, which can expose workers to inhalation or dermal hazards when they come into contact with steam, acids and hot surfaces
  • Fire and explosions, which can happen when process operations include the accidental ignition of gases, which can then lead to fires, or explosions in a worst-case scenario

Some key strategies that have been suggested to aid in mitigating these risks and hazards include:

  • Performing a facility-wide risk analysis before commissioning new projects
  • Following standard procedures with regard to hazardous materials – this includes shutting down all electrical resources during flammable spills, and familiarising workers and operators with resources and evacuation management
  • Making sure facility operators and workers are familiar with management procedures for operation changes, hot work permits, and safe systems of work
  • Being aware of special emergency treatments for specific incidents, and familiar with executing them when necessary
  • Examining equipment and utility integrity at regular intervals
  • Providing early warning systems, such as pressure monitors, as well as smoke and heat detectors
  • Conducting safety training sessions and workshops to foster good process and operational safety standards, such as identifying unsafe work environments or procedures, and wearing safety gear such as PPE when handling petrochemicals and other hazardous materials
Sufyan Nor, Head of Process Safety Management at PETRONAS

Process safety “appreciated even further”

In an interview conducted with Asian Downstream Insights, Sufyan Nor, Head of Process Safety Management at PETRONAS, shares that process safety emerged as a discipline after the Texas City incident in 2005, when a series of explosions at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and injured a staggering 180 more.

“Over the years, the awareness and understanding (of the need for process and operational safety) has improved significantly” says Sufyan. “We are now moving into a stage of maturity, where a holistic view of process safety is appreciated even further by a broader section of the workforce.”

When asked about how process and operational safety is set to evolve even more in the future, he comments, “The advent of digitalisation will only help to integrate the implementation of process safety more efficiently into our day-to-day operations. Relevant operating and technical data, as well as analytics, will be available on a single platform, in real-time” he states.

“Dynamic process safety risks can be made visible as a ‘single source of truth’ for everyone who needs to respond to these threats, and this will help to mature process safety as a culture that is ultimately embraced by the entire organisation.”

Process safety is of paramount importance to the oil & gas industry, and while no one can guarantee 100% accident or injury prevention, it is certainly important for operators and workers to make sure they do their best to do so, and know how they need to react should an incident occur.