Welding for the natural gas boom

March 19, 2013
By: Professor R. Carlisle "Carl" Smith

The natural gas boom in parts of the U.S. is creating work for shops and many displaced workers in these areas. Do you know which codes and standards apply?

Truck platforms for hauling

Figure 1

Massive natural gas discoveries in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have created somewhat of a “gold rush” atmosphere in various businesses in the region’s industrial communities. Among them are pipeline companies that have been limping along for several years, doing small jobs and hoping for better days, and shops that have never worked with pipe until now. Start-up companies with enough capital to jump in feet first are attempting to take advantage of the boom. Some are entrepreneurs who know nothing about the industrial world, but see an opportunity to get in on a hot moneymaker.

This area of the country has seen many plant and shop closings. Some larger companies have closed because of environmental regulations, and the trickle-down effect has caused fabricating shops and their equipment suppliers to go out of business. The coal industry—huge in this region and bordering states—has fought battles with the federal government (especially the current administration) and is said to be on the way out. Plants in South Charleston, W. Va., once known as “The Chemical Center of the World,” are almost totally gone. Automobile dealerships, restaurants, schools, and strip malls stand where the plants once were. Also, many coal-fired power plants have closed or are scheduled to close soon.

Labor Pool

Although mostly bad, this situation has created some advantages for those in the industry. Fabricating shops that have closed or dismissed workers have contributed to the availability of very good welders and fitters. Some are not familiar with pipe work, but pipe is not the only thing that is being fabricated for the gas industry. Also being built are platforms, tubs to haul drill pipe, carriers for air compressors and generators, mounts for lighting, and control centers (doghouses), as shown in Figure 1.

Coal industry workers who have lost their jobs are highly capable heavy-equipment operators who can prepare drill sites and pipeline right of ways. Many good coal industry workers also have the knowledge and ability to maintain, repair, and rebuild the equipment using their own tools (Figure 2).

The chemical industry has displaced the widest variety and largest number of capable and well-trained workers. Many engineers, piping draftsmen, and piping and tank fabricators from this industry have been out of work for long periods of time. This group also includes nondestructive testing technicians. These workers have lived in the area and established school, church, and community relationships that cause them to want to stay in their current homes. Some of them are second- and third-generation chemical workers, as are the coal miners. These new, good-paying natural gas jobs will allow them to stay around for some time.

The displaced power plant workers are familiar with instrumentation jobs that will be required once the compressed natural gas conversion plants are established. These people are also familiar with maintenance of piping, electrical circuitry, and other equipment.

Codes and Standards for Welding

API Standard 1104 for Pipelines and Related Facilities. Many fabricators in this area have never used or even heard of the American Petroleum Institute’s API Standard 1104. They soon will discover that while it is not impossible to implement, doing so isn’t a piece of cake.

A general misconception prevails that all the welding must be performed to the API Standard. Note that the API refers to this document as a standard, not a code.

On the Special Notes page of the standard, API makes a very informative statement: “API publications are published to facilitate the broad availability of proven, sound engineering and operating practices.” Having worked with this standard for many years (when it was only a few pages long), I can vouch for this statement. Some of the recommendations were established right here in West Virginia by our oil and gas industry. API also states that it “does not dictate the exclusive use of such documents.”  However, any company may require the use of this standard where it applies.

As is the case with any code or standard, the publishing organization—in this case, API—assumes no liability for any failure of a product that is welded to this standard. Even though API says it does not dictate using this standard, it is widely and almost exclusively used in the pipeline industry. The greatest difference between this standard and other codes and standards is that if it is not round we don’t use this one. When we see the trucks with a “798” number on the front license plate, we know it is a pipeliner. The largest union for pipeliners is Tulsa 798 (Figure 3), and it is tough to join. Usually, a recommendation from a current member is required.

Heavy equipment operators

Figure 2

ASME Codes for Pressure Vessels and Piping. The petroleum industry is a heavy user of ASME (founded as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers) codes and standards. Section IX is used in the fabrication (welding) of pressure vessels and piping. In the petroleum industry, it covers mainly compressor stations, oil and gas processing. The construction code used most frequently in this sector is Section VIII, Division I.

The processing equipment, often referred to as crackers (Figure 4), usually involves heat and high pressure. This makes Section VIII, Division I, the code of choice. Components usually are fabricated in the shop and transported to the plant site for final assembly. Inspection and hydrostatic tests are performed in the shops and then again at the plant site upon final assembly.

This code usually requires the services of an authorized inspector employed by an insurance agency, such as Hartford Steam Boiler, which double-checks the documentation of the work performed, as well as the welding procedures, qualification, and inspection.

AWS Codes and Standards. The American Welding Society has several codes and standards that apply to the oil and gas industry. The most frequently used is the D1.1 structural welding code. Unlike ASME Section IX welding code but similar to API 1104, this code comprises requirements for welder and procedure qualification, fabrication, inspection, and nondestructive testing. The structures that house the processing plants use this code to ensure that the facilities are built to the highest standard.

AWS also publishes other codes and standards for equipment, such as the D14 series that covers, for example, rotating equipment used in the drilling process. Derrick construction and repair fall into this category (Figure 5).

Aging Facilities and Pipelines

Most pipelines and facilities are aging, and some are becoming dangerous. I am aware of one 48-inch line called the Big Inch Pipeline that was laid in 1954. This line runs from Texas to New York. Although it has a much thicker wall than some pipelines, it still will be checked by ultrasound.

A major pipeline explosion in West Virginia recently made national news. It completely destroyed one residence and melted the siding on others (Figure 6). Nearly a quarter mile of asphalt on I-77 melted and had to be replaced. The line was about 50 years old and was originally 0.188-in.-wall pipe. The area that ruptured was only 0.125 in. Transmission lines everywhere are tohttp://www.thefabricator.com/article/editor/welding-for-the-natural-gas-boom/edit be ultrasonically tested for thickness. The first to be tested will be those in populated areas.

Several compressor substations (Figure 7) are 30 or more years old. They must be tested and repaired or rebuilt. Increased volume and pressure in the pipelines cause more flow and, therefore, more wear on the inside of the lines. Some wells use compressors to override the line pressure, and the compression creates more heat. Expansion and contraction of the lines caused by temperature change also has a bearing on pipe life.

The oil and gas industry has been safety-oriented over the years, but the rapidly increasing demand on the lines is placing additional strain on them.  Interest in replacing the older lines and facilities and installing new ones should increase significantly in the near future. Welders, fabricators, engineers, office personnel, and nondestructive technicians will be needed to perform this work.

New equipment purchases and hiring operators to run this equipment will help revive the limping economy in the Appalachian area. Because this area has seen very little work of this nature for many years, workforce training centers will be necessary.

Professor R. Carlisle

Professor R. Carlisle "Carl" Smith

Weld Inspection & Consulting
PO Box 841
St. Albans, WV 25177
Phone: 304-549-5606