Emerging Natural Gas industry: safety & health imperatives

Despite the relative beneficial attributes of natural gas over coal and oil, it has its own adverse char­acteristics. Considering the quest for Ghana to develop a natural gas industry with the associated gas from the Jubilee Field, it is pertinent to put in place what is necessary to make the industry sustainable.

Additionally, it is necessary to ensure proper environmental steward­ship in the relevant facilities and sys­tems of the industry including upstream and downstream processes such as gas winning, purification, stor­age, piping, distribution, reticulation and end-use.

These processes must be grounded on sound environmental management principles that do not compromise safety and health issues. Any lapses in terms of regulatory oversight, particu­larly, on issues pertaining to safety, health and environment may lead to adverse and traumatic consequences.

There are tools that could be applied to ensure that activities in the industry are carried out with fewer risks. The following environmental management tools and processes may be used in the industry:

-Strategic Environmental Assess­ment;

– Environmental Impact Assess­ment;

– Environmental Auditing;

– Life-cycle Analysis; and

-Environmental Performance Eval­uation (Environmental Reporting).

To avoid mere symptomatic treat­ment of environmental problems, the principles of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) should be applied in .the policy and planning stages of the industry. Environmental Impact Assessment is a prerequisite for developmental projects in Ghana, and requires the consent of the public and final approval by the EPA.

The disadvantages of Environmen­tal Impact Assessment are that it is undertaken late in the planning stage of a project, is often mired in contro­versy between environmentalists and project owners; .and may in some cases be compromised by political interfer­ence, making the final decision biased.

In situations where SEA is proper­ly applied, only limited Environmental Impact Assessment may be necessary and thus avoid controversy. It is laud­able that SEA has been opera­tionalised by the EPA in Ghana. The advantage of SEA over the Environmental Impact Assessment is that it allows an assessment of the influence of a project on the environment at all levels of the initial strategic decision­ making process.

An Environmental Management System (EMS), which consists of a continual cycle of policy making, planning, implementation, reviewing and improvement is necessary at all the facilities and systems of the natural gas industry. There are numerous examples of why EMS is needed.

For example, it is possible that leakage would occur along the “right-of-way” (the access ‘road’ created for the construction of the pipelines) to the point of use during the piping of natural gas over long distances, like in the case of the Temane-Secunda pipeline, which transmits natural gas from Mozambique to South Africa.

However, since natural gas is much lighter than air, leaked gases are quickly dispersed, posing virtually no danger. When a gas pipeline breaks, gas quickly spreads in the dirt and forms a volatile cloud in the air.

Subsequently, a random spark – a tailpipe scrape or a flick of a cigarette lighter – can cause a fire outbreak, leading to disastrous consequences. The hazards associated with the pipelines and storage equipment, apart from leakage, include corrosion, explosion and poisoning requiring the enforcement of stringent safety regula­tions, which cover steel length, wall­ thickness and testing schedules.

Pigs (devices that are pushed through a pipe to examine it for corro­sion and defects) are to be used for standard monitoring and testing proce­dures. In contemporary times, state of-the-art robotic devices – smart pigs – are used for the former proce­dures.

Smart pigs are used to sweep through pipelines to collect informa­tion about cracks, dents, and more importantly, where pipe walls are thinned by corrosion. In fact, the smart pig is the gold standard of inspection technology.

Hydrotesting – the use of pres­surised water under tightly con­trolled conditions – can be used for the same purpose. However, each one has its own advantages and dis­advantages.

In general, many accidents that occur in the natural gas industry are caused by third parties operating near buried pipelines and by force majeure such as earthquakes or earth tremors. Because pipelines cover longer distances, there are many places where third-party interference and damage can occur.

For instance, subsistence farm­ers trying to till the new “rights-of-­way” while other people attempt to use this ‘road’ for vehicular access, posing hazards.

Why would farmers attempt to do this?

The “rights-of-way” is cleared of trees and bushes, and presents an inviting opportunity for the subsis­tence farmer to knowingly or unknowingly plant some quick maturing vegetables or crops. While patrolling all the pipelines on a daily basis would not be feasible; damage and accidents can be avoided if they were given periodic surveillance, including security fencing to ward off intruders.

Although natural gas is the cleanest of all the fossil fuels, its combustion in poorly ventilated homes causes indoor air pollution that is harmful to human health. This may lead to acute respiratory infection which may burden our health system.

During combustion, natural gas emits a lot of particulate matter consisting of soot, carbon black and oily grime, which normally causes asthma and breathing difficulties, particularly, in women and chil­dren. The burying of pipelines near densely populated areas needs to be avoided, if possible.

Whenever, disaster strikes, the fatalities, injuries and destruction are often massive. Thus, the law requiring the operators of high pressure natural gas pipelines to inspect and assess all sections of their lines in densely populated area must be strictly enforced.

If we are to ensure that there is no cosy relationship between the natural gas industry and regulators, there is the need to define the boundaries between them. The work of the proposed Petroleum Commission is very important and the nascent industry in Ghana can­not do without it.

Credit: Dr Joe Asamoah

Source: Daily Graphic

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.