Engineering a better flaring solution in the Middle East
It is not uncommon for new operational regulations and initiatives to present a serious challenge to the preferred practices of the hydrocarbon industry.
Clayton A Francis
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The divide between the two provides an arena for innovation where the most creative and capable engineering minds try to reconcile the industry and the regulatory perspectives. The new High Pressure Air Assist System (HPAAS) flaring technology demonstrates the development of such a solution to satisfy both sides.
The function of a flare is a safety relief device in which toxic and combustible gases are disposed in a manner that is safe for the plant and the people within it or in close proximity. Therefore the flare is necessary safety equipment for hydrocarbon production, transport, and processing. Even with the tremendous advancements that have slashed flaring rates and impacts, flares will be longstanding fixtures across producing landscapes. Out of concern for the impact they have, pressure continually mounts to reduce the effects of flaring by increasing destruction efficiencies, reducing utility consumption, and especially by reducing visible emissions. For industry, regulators, and vendors alike, opportunities will always remain to advance flare operation and design.
As refineries, plants, production, and transport units age, upgrading technologies is the desired alternative to the capital expenditure required to replace entire flare systems. Engineers from Saudi Aramco partnered with Zeeco to develop their flare technology specifically targeted to eliminate smoke in an efficient, economical manner in areas without access to steam and without the need for a new flare stack. The new HPAAS technology utilises super-sonic air injection in a manner that can be easily adapted to retrofit and upgrade outdated, smoking technologies. The application of HPAAS is proven to bring exceptional value to the user in both operational and monetary terms.
Drivers for Change in the Middle East
Operational standards throughout the petroleum industry are continuously evaluated and updated in favour of practices that relieve environmental impacts. This is true of flaring and is especially true in the case of smoking flares. The impetus for change often comes in the form of environmental regulations, but it can also stem from monetary drivers or public perception.
Visible for kilometres and omnipresent, elevated flares are a billboard that cannot be turned off. Due to this high visibility, the fire and any smoke emitted from flares attract the acute attention and concern of all parties who wish to mitigate inefficiencies and emissions in the industry. Whether or not the level of attention given to flares is justifiable, the flare is becoming a lightning rod driving change in flaring technology.
This change is coming quickly and steadily to the Middle East. While limitations on emissions and smoking flares legislated around the world may not apply to all locations in this region, other influencers may have a similar, nearer-term effect. International and financial institutions have formed coalitions to incentivise the operational changes. Some of the most influential companies in the industry have enacted internal protocols that exceed government or international standards to demonstrate their commitment to environmental concerns. It is conceivable that additional operators in the Middle East will necessarily revise flare design and operation protocols in the near-term whether driven by regulation, incentive, or their own initiative.
Previously, the second revision of The Royal Commission for Environmental Regulations (RCER)3 issued operational protocols and standards for the Jubail and Yanbu industrial areas to specifically address emissions and air quality. The initiative requires normal flare operation to be completely free from smoke emissions and significantly restricts the allowed frequency and length of permitted process upsets. In these industrial areas, dozens upon dozens of flare tips are in constant service. When a regulation such as RCER is enacted, the conversion of existing non-smokeless flares becomes a priority for the operators. In the common case where a flare is already in existence, retrofitting a smokeless technology in a cost- and utility-efficient manner can be a challenging endeavour. Failure to do so, however, can result in penalty by fines. These range in magnitude from minor charges of $1000 USD to one-time penalties in excess of $100 000 USD9.
The drivers for change do not have to come from within a country’s borders. An international initiative by the World Bank seeks to minimise the loss of natural resources and reduce the environmental and climatological impact of flaring and venting associated with the production of crude oil2. The Global Initiative on Natural Gas Flaring Reduction (GGFR) was formed with the purpose of changing public policy via monetary incentives within producing countries with active flaring practices. The combination of monetary incentives and aforementioned legislative penalties are targeted to bring about the desired change in operational procedures and parameters8. Part of the initiative recognises that the formation of smoke when flaring represents incompleteness in combustion, and as a result the environmental impact of a smoky flare is greater than that of a smokeless one. While varying from country to country, the result of the GGFR initiatives could lead to more stringent smokeless requirements. These procedural changes become complex and expensive to retrofit to existing equipment.
Either as a result of the aforementioned external influences or by their own internal prerogatives, company operational procedures often require improved smokeless performance for flares. To be congruent with the RCER and other internal initiatives, Saudi Aramco has published stringent flare operation protocols in their engineering standards specifications SAES-A-1025. According to this standard, all flares with a throughput of up to 1MMSCFD (million standard cubic feet per day) are required to be smokeless for all normal operations. Flares exceeding that flow rate are required to have a flare gas recovery system installed to mitigate flaring almost entirely. The enactment of this specification has massive implications when applied to the numerous flares already in existence without the necessary utilities installed to achieve smokeless combustion. When an International company implements a similar initiative, the impact is felt on operations in multiple countries.
All three drivers of change – regulatory, incentivised, and internal – apply to most of the Middle East including the countries of Egypt, Iraq, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, and Qatar. Even if such operational requirements are not affecting a particular site yet, it is a reasonable assumption that they will be in the near future.
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