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Lessons from a European pipeliner: Phil Hopkins

Upon his retirement from the industry, renowned international pipeliner and previous Penspen Technical Director Professor Phil Hopkins spoke to The Australian Pipeliner about managing ageing pipelines, the necessity of good mentoring and training, and the importance of cultivating skilled, knowledgeable workers in the pipeline industry.

Having recently retired from your role as Technical Director at Penspen, what are you doing now?

I’m now an independent consultant, but still based in the U.K.

After many happy years at Andrew Palmer and Associates and Penspen Ltd I have moved on and I’m now working on a variety of projects, and also expanding my teaching, training and mentoring activities.

How do you see the current state of the international pipeline industry?

The pipeline industry is in good health, but the current low oil price is having an effect, with projects being delayed, and recruitment slowing down.

When you’ve been in the oil and gas business for a long time, you are used to the ups and downs of the oil price, but staff and companies new to the industry will be concerned.

We may see a low oil price continuing: a slowdown in some of the big economies, and the surge in supply (e.g. shale oil from the U.S., and OPEC maintaining its supply) means that the producers and oil-rich governments will suffer, but the low oil price should benefit the global economy, so it’s not all bad news.

A lot of your work, in the past, has involved older pipelines, and their safety. How do you see the pipeline industry managing these ageing pipelines?

When it comes to the safety of a pipeline, its age is not the major consideration: it is how it is managed.

Old pipelines can be, and are, very safe, as most pipeline failures are not related to age.

Also, all the statistics indicate that pipeline failures are decreasing: this is because we are managing them safely, but this is not a cue for complacency.

I believe we have good technologies and management systems that will help us maintain a safe industry, but our next challenge will be organisational: have we the correct safety culture, what are the company values, management commitment, have we competent staff, etc.?

The organisation, if not correctly led, can cause future failures.

What do you believe to be the most important aspect of pipeline integrity? And how do you ensure this is implemented?

I strongly believe it is the people.

Good people equals safe pipelines.

Sadly, the opposite is true.

By “˜good’, I mean committed workers who take ownership of their work.

They work to high standards and have good, demonstrable values.

What have been the main changes that you’ve seen occur during your time in the industry, from an integrity management perspective?

There have been real improvements in management systems, and technology.

You would expect this.

There has been an increase in the laws and regulations relating to integrity management, and this is a good thing.

A downside is the decrease in research and development: most research is now aimed at commercial gain, rather than understanding.

A good example is the fantastic developments in smart tools to detect cracks in pipelines, but the absence of modern methodologies to assess the cracks once they are found.

Another huge change is the internet and social media: staff and companies are updated on pipeline failures instantly, and have immediate access to technical information. Fantastic.

What have been the most important lessons that you’ve learnt during your time in the pipeline industry?

All my old colleagues will tell you to always tell your partner where you are: my wife once thought I was in my study at home, and called out from the kitchen to ask if I wanted a cup of tea.

Problem was… I was in India.

She has a loud voice, but not that loud.

My advice is to quickly establish your own standards and values, and only work with companies who have the same standards and values.

Your standards and values will guide you through your career.

What would be the most important piece of advice you could give to young, up-and-coming pipeliners?

Always be honest and professional, and never stop learning.

The latter point is very important in the early part of any career: the first few years of your career should be aimed at learning and development.

Yes, I know that money is important, but it is not the key consideration in your early career.

Do not be distracted by money – yet!

And the best way to learn is by having a “˜father-grandfather’ (not very “˜PC’ but that’s what it has traditionally been called) line management above you.

Ensure your immediate boss has deep knowledge and his or her boss has wide knowledge.

As someone who is actively involved in pipeline engineering training courses around the world, can you comment on the importance of this training?

It is not important, it is essential.

As I said earlier, the next “˜big thing’ in pipeline engineering is “˜competence’, and that requires training.

There have been big changes in training in the past few years.

Attendees on training courses now expect to receive a lot of knowledge during a short training course.

They do not receive knowledge, they receive information – the trainer has the knowledge.

The attendee gains this knowledge when the information is understood, expanded, and used over a period of time.

The other big change in training has been the impact of social media – it is interesting to see what attendees do during their breaks on a course – most merely check their smart phones for emails, texts, etc.

Ten years ago the breaks were used to network, chat, and generally get to know others in the industry.

I won’t dwell on this change, but it is useful to Google the famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who warned that the creation and growth of communication technologies can actually “˜shrink’ a person’s world, rather than grow it.

Looking back at your career thus far, what has been a highlight and what has been the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is always keeping up to date, and – of course – ensuring my wife knows where I am.

The highlight? I’m lucky – it has been one long highlight, so far!

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