Does a pipeline engineer:
a) Write direction drill specifications?
b) Determine pipeline coating type?
c) Evaluate residual stress in a pipeline after creek washout?
d) Select a pipeline route for a new pipeline?
e) Drink light beer?
f) Write valve specifications?
g) None of the above?
h) At least all of the above?
i) Some of the above, depending on circumstances?
These are the type of informal questions asked, in order to get the conversation going:
“¢ Define “pipeline engineer”.
“¢ What is a “good” pipeline engineer to you?
“¢ What is the first thing you think of when I say “pipeline engineer”?
“¢ What skills make up a pipeline engineer?
“¢ What do you expect when you ask for pipeline expertise?
Some of the responses I received:
“¢ “I don’t know”
“¢ “It could be anyone really…but then I guess I wouldn’t hire a ballerina to do the job”
“¢ “It’s too much to ask that one person have all the desired skills”
“¢ “Never met one I didn’t like”
“¢ “Now it’s code-based so “˜almost anyone’ can do it”
“¢ “Who’d be one these days?”
The answer, as I have found out after a very unscientific and non-academic canvass of a small portion of the pipeline industry in Australia, is somewhere in between (h) and (i) although evidence shows that choice (e) is usually very incorrect!
I set out in an attempt to define “Pipeline Engineer” as a follow up to some questions asked recently by members of the pipeline industry about what we are doing to ensure that the industry remains as skilled as it currently is, particularly in response to the ongoing changes in pipeline industry structure. These concerns are valid and should be addressed, but how? Perhaps the direction that the industry takes depends somewhat on where we take it, and perhaps where we take it partly depends on what we ultimately expect of the people in the industry.
“Pipeline engineer” is not currently a recognised engineering “discipline”, like civil or mechanical engineering. After doing my ad-hoc research for this project, I believe this is because a pipeline
engineer ultimately has to be multi-disciplined. To quote one member of the industry (a chemical engineer, to be precise), a pipeline engineer needs to be a “good at everything, and a master of some things”.
I spoke to over 30 industry people for this project, thinking that would cover a good cross-section of the industry, but I was surprised and humbled at the Brisbane dinner to realise how many eminent members of the industry I had not spoken to. This exercise has reminded me of the great variety of skill and personalities in this industry, something we should not take for granted.
“I don’t know” or “that’s a good question” was a common first response to my question asking for the definition of a pipeline engineer, but once people had thought about it, we arrived at some good insights. I learned to start asking for the second thing people thought of when I said “pipeline engineer”, because the first thing was usually derogatory, or about alcohol consumption. “Could be anyone”, “could be any discipline” was a typical response too, although many specifically said “mechanical engineer”, some identified “civil engineer” but there seemed to be a bit of a split on process engineers – one person said “absolutely not a process person”, and one specified that it should be a process engineer. Some also rightly pointed out that some of the good pipeliners are not even engineers.
The top two dichotomies found in the responses were:
1. Detailed Knowledge/ Technical Expertise versus Broad, Multidisciplinary Knowledge
Some respondents expressed the expectation of very “detailed” knowledge. Words like, “likes tinkering”, “detail design”, “mechanically astute”, “technical knowledge of CP” indicate that a pipeline engineer has to have very specific knowledge; be an expert at something. But on the other hand, I was told that pipeline engineers should also able to see the whole picture of the project from the view of business objectives, environment issues and teamwork, beyond the one technical thing they are an expert at. It was also pointed out that it is important for pipeline engineers to be aware of their knowledge limits, but more importantly, for them to know when they need to get more information or knowledge from somewhere else.
2. Design versus Construction experience
Getting experience in both design and construction might be an idealisation these days, because projects do not currently seem to be structured with allowance for that sort of experience for younger engineers, particularly the opportunity for design engineers to see their efforts on site. This is evident with cost-focussed projects and the restructuring of the industry to having at least four different companies involved in the design, construction, operation and ownership of pipelines. This might hurt the industry in the long run in terms of developing the industry’s skill base.
Perhaps we should take a step back and first ask the question: what is a pipeline? Is a pipeline 1.5 km long, 8-in. diameter, or is it 36-in. diameter, 300 km long? Are the meter stations and compressor stations part of the pipeline, or is that the “facilities”?
To some, a “real” pipeline is a large diameter, 300 km long cross-country affair, with others being responsible for the bits on the end. To others, a pipeline is quite perfectly an 8-in. diameter, 1.5 km extension with meter stations, valving and pig launcher/receiver scraper
These two projects are very different and require very different skills. Most obvious is perhaps environmental, planning and landowner issues on a large long distance pipeline. The first two years of any large-scale pipeline project involves the planning and environmental issues, and not very much “engineering”. To some, like me, that’s pipelining – site visits to sort out alignment, landowner negotiations, planning, forecasting, organising and ultimately constructing. So is it pipeline “engineering” on a 300 km pipeline? The “engineering design” part of the cross-country pipeline is only a very small part of the total engineering input, compared to the engineering requirement on facilities and stations.
If we consider an 8-in. diameter, 1.5 km extension to a meter station a “pipeline”, it is arguable that this project is more properly done by a mechanical or plant engineer rather than a civil or project/general engineer, as it certainly has more “engineering” or “design” issues such as tie ins, valving, metering and pipe stress issues. So does that make the mechanical/plant engineer designing that project a “pipeline engineer”?
Another question is, do you want this pipeline engineer to design, construct or operate the pipeline? Or, all of the above? Design requires attention to detail and sound mechanical knowledge, construction requires personal mobility (and an understanding spouse) and the ability to gain the respect of a construction crew, and operations require getting your hands dirty turning valves and an ongoing commitment to the asset.
The industry has changed and pipeline projects are now compartmentalised into sections like “environmental/cultural heritage”, “design”, “construction”, “land management” and “operations”. The design portion itself is then further subdivided into “mechanical”, “process”, “instrument”, “civils” and “CP”. Twenty years ago pipelining was a bit of a “black art” and pipeline engineers back then did it all – the route selection, the corrosion protection system, the instrumentation, the mechanical bits, regulatory issues, construction issues, almost all of it. Decisions were based on a very wide-ranging all-round knowledge within the pipeline engineer, because in general they had been exposed to all those requirements during their career. This was made possible because one company, the owner/operator, was responsible for the entire project from start to finish.
The current structure of the Australian industry does not allow for flow-through skill development. Projects are “lumpy”, they have fits of stop-start-stop, they are split into design, construction and operations tasks as if they are completely separate from each other, and there is a constant fight to limit engineering hours spent on tasks. There is no allowance for freedom of original thought – it is all about faster, cheaper, and doing it the same as last time.
However, I am not without hope for the industry, and that is why I have put the effort and time into this investigation. In an attempt to come to some kind of conclusion, I toyed with the idea of encouraging the use of the label of “pipeliners” instead of “pipeline engineers”, but what I have not touched on in this article is the professional and ethical responsibility that engineers expect of themselves, so I do not think we should do away with the “pipeline engineer” title. I do note, as well, that many non-engineers in the pipeline industry take on extraordinary responsibility as well.
The definition of a pipeline engineer clearly depends on what is expected of that pipeline engineer. The “best” pipeline engineer for a company like Epic or Alinta may not be the best pipeline engineer for a company like McConnell Dowell or Agility, so that is why there is no clear definition.
The requirements of pipeline engineers are so wide and varied, it may be impossible to have one definition. The point I have concluded with is that each of us needs to be aware of our own internal definition and expectations of pipeline engineers, and more importantly to be fairly sure of what problem we actually want solved, so that when we go looking for a pipeline engineer we are less likely to be disappointed, because we have a good definition of what we are looking for. Additionally, we each need to work towards helping to develop in others those skills which we have defined for ourselves as being important to the successful delivery of a pipeline project. This will broaden and improve of the skill base in the pipeline industry.
It is important that the pipeline industry discuss and debate this, to deal with concerns that have been voiced about a lack of skills in the industry, because in the end, it is up to us to do something about it.