Natural Gas, Sustainability and the Far North

If You Have an Opinion About the Way Your Plant, Your Country or Your World Is Being Run, It Is Up to You to Take Action

By Walt Boyes

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In June, I went to Hammerfest, Norway, for an ABB press event and tour of the Statoil LNG plant and terminal on Melkøya Island. With all the argumentative media attention to the proposed Canadian LNG pipeline, and the apparent debacle over fracking, I found the attitude of the Norwegian oil company and ABB executives refreshing. First, what you have to know is Melkøya is the first large-scale attempt to extract natural gas (and some oil) from the Barents Sea and the Arctic. If you look up Hammerfest on the map, you can see just how far north it is. We were there over the summer solstice (June 21) and there really was midnight sun. It was as light at 2:30 a.m. as it was at 2:30 p.m. the next day. The Barents Sea region is environmentally fragile, as are most Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

Statoil has evolved many new techniques to ensure enhanced safety at the wellhead, particularly in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon event in 2010. One of those techniques is the use of completely submersible wellhead systems instead of floating platforms. These totally automated stations are protected from damage due to ice and storms, and the pipelines from these stations are laid along the sea floor all the way to Hammerfest. Power goes out to the undersea platforms, as does the return CO2.

It is the opinion of Øivind Nilsen, vice president of production for Statoil, that this is a major step forward for the safety and environmental friendliness of natural gas extraction. Unlike other LNG plants, at Melkøya, CO2 is stripped off the gas, but not released to atmosphere. To minimize the carbon footprint of the plant, the CO2 is captured and re-injected into the gas wells.

Nilsen and Per Erik Holsten, head of ABB's process automation division in Norway, said that the Norwegian government was being very cautious about permitting wholesale development in the Barents Sea. It appears that much of the world's cod and other fish are spawned there, and it is just as much of an ecologically sensitive region as the Alaska pipeline area.

Béla Lipták has written for years in these pages about the right and wrong way to do things, such as control nuclear power plants and fracking, among others. He continues to point out that if control engineers were running these projects, they might get done more safely, faster and with less damage to the environment. I don't know if he's right or not, but it is beginning to look like it.

I've written often about the fact that automation and control professionals often don't have the business skills they need to pursue their careers in the 21st century. They often don't have the requisite political and social skills either. That means that our opinions don't count as much as our experience and expertise should merit. We'd much rather be in the plant, making it work or work better than trying to understand how the business we work for is run, or how to make what we do more environmentally sustainable, so we can leave and undamaged ecosphere and a decent standard of living to our children.

If you have an opinion about the way your plant, your country or your world is being run, it is up to you to take action and do something about it. Don't just say, "Well, let George do it." There is no "George," and "George" won't do it. Only we can.

If you believe that, for example, natural gas can be extracted safely and sustainably from the Arctic, go do it, and go tell people how. The vast majority of our fellow citizens have so little scientific training that they simply don't know which "expert" to believe. We do have the knowledge and the training. We need to lead.

If you think I'm on to something, let me know.

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