The Perfect Storm Platform

Assuring oil production, avoiding shutdowns during a hurricane requires a fresh approach to managing workflow and collaboration across operational disciplines

By Stan DeVries, Michael Chmilewski, and Nicholas Sheble

When a major storm threatens the 3,500 offshore platforms operating in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, the focus is largely on demobilizing personnel and shut-in production. 

Should that be the approach? Probably not. Premature closure of or unnecessary loss of offshore production costs oil and gas companies millions of dollars each year. 

The emphasis is on hurricane evacuation, not continued operation. Elsewhere in the world, however, major energy companies are set up to accomplish hurricane evacuation without interrupting operations. They have already implemented the ability to operate remotely during normal conditions and can extend this to operations before and after a storm.

The recent combination of major storms, high export prices, and challenging health, safety, and environmental (HSE) targets in the energy industries has prompted many oil and gas producers to evaluate alternative methods for maintaining operational continuity. 

One tried and proven technique, remote operations, has been in use in the energy industries for more than 20 years and has great potential for helping petroleum companies meet the new challenges they face. Applying this to the task of assuring safe continuation of production or avoiding unnecessary shutdown of U.S. production operations, however, requires a fresh approach to managing workflow and collaboration across operational disciplines. 

Remote operations applications range from the occasional management of essential operations to full remote operations, from the food & beverage to the water & wastewater industries.

Operate from anywhere

Remote operations applications range from the occasional management of essential operations, called Normally Attended Installations (NAI), to full remote operations, called Normally Unattended Installations (NUI). 

One important aspect of these implementations is the agility to adapt the span of control among multiple control centers, so operational control can transfer across any number of locations. In general, the procedures, training, technology, and cultural requirements for NAI are less challenging than for NUI.

The U.S. government's Minerals Management Service reports that 819 of the roughly 3,500 offshore platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico are NUI. However, these are in shallow water, and most are for gas production, which is easier to train for and operate remotely. 

To date, there do not appear to be any major or deepwater/ultra deepwater installations in this region that are NUI.

However, elsewhere in the world, major energy companies operate world-scale, deepwater installations as NUI, employing a new concept for remote operations known as "adaptive span of control." The Total platforms in the North Sea and Brunei Shell platforms in the South China Sea are two such facilities. 


  • Major energy companies operate world-scale, deepwater wells as normally unattended installations.
  • As bad weather progresses, operational control rolls back to platforms further away or outside the evacuation area.
  • The agility to transfer control among multiple centers has value to the power, petrochemical, pulp and paper, and ethanol industries.

Total operates 21 deepwater offshore wet gas platforms in the Netherlands sector of the North Sea, which produce a combined 680 million standard cubic feet per day (scfd) of gas. 

With the objective of improving their HSE performance benchmark, Total implemented an approach that allows them to quickly and feasibly adapt the span of control among three offshore and one onshore control center as well as ensure consistent and safe technical support from anywhere. 

This is that company's "operate from anywhere, support from anywhere, best practices everywhere" approach. 

Here, Total moved from NAI to NUI as a normal approach. The result was a higher HSE benchmark, increased production availability, reduced operations costs, and a new culture. 

Now, personnel maintain a consistent level of training and use identical procedures for operations, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), and safety systems engineering and maintenance. New personnel, whether employees or contractors, undergo training before participating. This provides a higher level of operations performance that one can duplicate in other fields. 

Another producer has implemented similar techniques in a cluster of deepwater offshore oil and gas platforms, which it operates in the South China Sea. These produce a combined 100,000 bpd of oil and over 500 million scfd of gas. 

The objective was to improve production availability of gas supply for the world scale LNG facility, while satisfying the agility demands of a major power station. Previous operations required coordination among 11 control centers, including a large onshore gas plant. 

The diversity and performance of the power generation and compression facilities made this especially challenging. The company implemented an approach to change from NAI to NUI, which included the centralization of power generation and compression equipment offshore. 

Now, two operators and one supervisor per shift govern activities, and the span of control can be adapted to any of the existing locations when conditions require.

Assuring system integrity

The best practices examples we have described depend upon a foundation of enabling technology that delivered improvements in overall system integrity for safe remote operations and enabled the operating companies to embrace the process for "adaptive span of control."

The levels of system integrity layout in a similar fashion to the ISO 7-layer communications model. The foundation for the system integrity model starts with the physical health of the remote operation. 

Physical conditioning: Standard SCADA and Distributed Control System (DCS) hardware remain a key part of the overall system and serve as the central points for alerting and adapting to system integrity issues. 

However, for remote operations, the components of any SCADA or DCS must be hardened against all possible environmental conditions (e.g., vibration, temperature, humidity, EMI, and others) and configured with the highest availability (i.e., redundancy) in mind. 

Another aspect of physical conditioning requires a new approach to Condition Monitoring technologies that can drive early problem detection through predictive techniques. 

Use of advanced technologies such as friction sensors offer vast improvements over traditional vibration sensors, enabling continuous monitoring with measurable and qualitative indication of condition anytime. 

Using wireless sensor networks in the operation can also greatly increase process awareness with more measurements at less cost, plus the added  benefit of deriving inferential measurements from soft sensors.

Infrastructure robustness for remote operations begins with ensuring the quality of everything from power to telecommunications and operational data. 

Putting one's finger on HSE

Health, safety, and environmental (HSE) programs are that vague. They are not laws, rules, standards, or statutes. They are more of a sensibility, a responsibility, or a social conscience barometer. 

"As a globally operating and responsible forwarding and logistics solutions provider, we are devoted to the promotion of health-preserving, safety-oriented, and environmentally friendly attitudes within the company," said one large company.

These sorts of endeavors aim to mitigate health and safety risks in the workplace and impacts to the environment. In this respect, the well-being of employees, contractors, customers, and communities is as important an issue as social responsibility and sustainable development.  

Another company listed its HSE program as having these attributes:

  • Provide employees with a safe and healthy work environment.
  • Develop safety awareness among employees and others engaged in work so accidents (personal injuries and property damage) and occupational illnesses are reduced to a minimum.
  • Identify and control safety, public health, and environmental hazards associated with their operations.
  • Work constructively with government agencies and others to develop and implement laws, regulations, and standards to protect public health, safety, and the environment. 
  • Work with management to assure adequate funding and staffing for environmental health and safety programs.

Adherence to best practices to ensure network connections and the Information Technology, or IT, infrastructure and rigorous performance of online backups of all critical systems remains vitally important for continuity of remote operations. 

New wireless communication infrastructures offer an added dimension of mobility to the platform, improving field engineer productivity and efficiency via wireless diagnostics, maintenance, data collection, monitoring, and alarming. 

Likewise, new standards, such as PRODML (Production XML), have begun to enable the consistent integration of disparate systems and production data that otherwise require manual intervention. 

Security: As with all installations in the energy industry today, it is critical to adopt a strong security process within the remote operation to help ensure safety. 

Use of intrusion detection, encryption, and prevention technologies to avoid computer viruses and worms, unauthorized users, disgruntled employees, denial of service attacks, and the like remain essential to safe and effective remote operations. 

Likewise, security policy must eliminate the use of secondary threat vehicles such as ad hoc servers, thumb drives, modems, and the rest. Operationally, the use of multi-vendor, multi-owner systems must provide proper segregation of information and controls to meet vendor, partner, and government security requirements. 

Security is first-and-foremost a business process that technology can only enable. Intrinsic security for the remote operations can only happen through the right architecture and process.

Maintaining operational stability is important to any remote operation, especially in the face of stress conditions, which limit availability of local personnel. 

The thoughtful integration and interlocking of control systems on the platform in order to adapt and manage potential failures using integrated process information is important. 

Added intelligence within control systems, designed to follow a "process park" methodology, can work to isolate events instead of forcing a complete shutdown. 

Safety and critical control systems with expanded I/O and logic working in tandem with online models can also help minimize shutdowns without any sacrifice of safe operation. 

Overall, improved stability of remote operations evolves to the better through smarter integration of critical systems. This is in contrast to the "islands of automation" architectures previously deployed.

Change management: The discipline of change management is essential to the integrity of any remote operation. 

This applies across all aspects of the control systems used to manage production. The actual technology utilized for the SCADA and DCS systems must inherently govern and track operation, configuration, and maintenance activities. 

To implement and maintain rigorous change management, the more effective systems today have begun to embrace service-oriented architectures (SOA), taking advantage of object management technology and its inherent control of creation, replication, and dissemination of applications objects, workflows, and services. 

With SOA and object management firmly in place, more advanced control systems can deliver quick and easy redeployment of objects for system optimization and thus establish the highest confidence level in the management and documentation of any changes made.

Vigilance: The concept of operational vigilance is key to system integrity. 

Operational vigilance requires the constant evaluation of alert conditions that arise in normal operations delivered via a highly effective notification service. 

While it is common for operating equipment to deteriorate over time, the conditions that produce equipment problems are often too complex and occur too slowly for teams to identify until it may be too late. 

It is vitally important therefore that the right people receive notification at the right time, which means continuous analysis and early predictions of problems. Depending upon the real threat level of an event or predicted outage, different alerts will require the notification of different persons. 

Thus, there is the importance that real alerts appear in the right context to avoid (a) overloading a diminishing pool of remote and mobile experts, and (b) exposing operational problems to people who have no need to know. 

Adaptive span of control

Full span of control requires safe and orderly access to all alarms and equipment controls for a given area. 

This requires better assessment of operational conditions, better management of alarms, and better transfer of span of control and alarms. Supervisors need the ability to change assignments among multiple operators and crews at any time.

Transferring span of control is never permanent, and the greatest risk is during transfer. The span of control must be adapted when new equipment adds in, the process changes, weather changes, and other like situations.

Transfer is among offshore centers and in both directions between land and offshore. These large-scale transfers support "operational roll-back." 

As bad weather progresses towards outer platforms, offshore operations can roll back to those platforms further away or outside the pending evacuation area. The reverse procedure can also occur reliably as offshore operations gradually resume.

Rather than involving a permanent transfer to onshore, remote operations require full, adaptive span of control at multiple locations.

Technology today addresses traditional challenges:

  • Better use of wireless networked sensors
  • Intelligent condition monitoring
  • Adaptive infrastructure

With system integrity and correct span of control, operating companies and their vendors can safely and frequently change where, when, how, and which people work to prevent or effectively intervene in problems.

Best practices in remote operations can help operators achieve higher HSE performance, higher production availability, and reduced operations cost. Best practices require good management of evolving the technology, procedures, and culture to continually achieve and accelerate performance.


Stan DeVries ( is the director of upstream solutions at Invensys. Michael Chmilewski ( is vice president of SCADA and pipeline business at Invensys. Nicholas Sheble ( is senior technical editor for InTech.  


Redundancy: The ability of a system to keep functioning normally in the event of a component failure, by having backup components that perform duplicate functions.

PRODML is an industry initiative to provide open, non-proprietary, standard interfaces between software tools used to monitor, manage, and optimize hydrocarbon production. The standard will emerge as V1.0 PRODML ( on 16 October.

SOA: In a service oriented architecture environment, nodes on a network make resources available to other participants in the network as independent services that the participants access in a standardized way.


Oil and Gas Supply Chain Peril: Integration of process and security systems most feasible for oil platforms, pipelines, and terminals

Wired for oil: A SCADA architecture based on Foundation fieldbus and Ethernet secures inaccessible land locations and offshore platforms.