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1998-05-19 21:03:34


Natural Gas: A Vital But Noncompliant Industry


This position paper is not available elsewhere on the Web. I am using my site to gain wider distribution for it.

The writer has worked for fifteen years for National Fuel Gas. He spent seven years as a computer programmer and systems analyst working on computerized materials management, purchasing, and oil and gas accounting systems in an IBM mainframe environment. The primary languages were COBOL and CICS (IBMís teleprocessing language). Since then the writer has worked eight years as a database administrator, working with Software AGís ADABAS database, and the NATURAL programming language. His duties include software installations, maintenance and tuning, and database design work. Since 1997, he has also begun working as a database administrator with ORACLE databases.

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Paul Slish

Natural gas is a major energy source in the U.S. Natural gas accounts for 31% of energy production and 25% of energy consumption in the U.S. More than 50% of the energy consumed by residential and commercial customers is supplied. by natural gas. Natural gas provides 41% of the energy used by U.S. industry. 27% of this production comes from offshore areas.

99% of the natural gas consumed is produced in North America. There are more than 60 million residential and commercial natural gas customers in the U.S. This totals to 175,000,000 American consumers. 53% of American homes use natural gas for a total of 59 million. In the U.S. there are 288,000 producing natural gas wells, 125 natural gas pipeline companies, and 1200 gas distribution companies. The transmission and main distribution pipelines total 1,300,000 miles. The U.S. accounts for 24% of the world's annual natural gas production. 17% of the natural gas consumed in the U.S. is used to produce electric power. This represents 11% of the electric power generated.

There are basically five segments of the industry: exploration, production, transmission, storage, and distribution. Obviously, if there is any significant disruption, even in the short run, to production, transmission, or distribution of natural gas, it would wreak havoc in the lives of residential consumers, and to the operations of most of the commercial and industrial concerns in the U.S. Any lengthy disruption to either exploration or storage (either incoming or outgoing) would also wreak havoc to the U.S. economy.

A brief history of the use of natural gas in the U.S. is found at The five industry segments will be discussed with reference to computer systems and the year 2000. The writer is a senior systems analyst in the information services department at National Fuel Gas Company of Buffalo, NY. He is not aware of any web site or other published literature comprehensively examining the entire natural gas industry in relation to computer problems as January 1, 2000 approaches. This brief paper is only exploratory, and is certainly subject to revision and correction if more information becomes available.

PCs, networks, and servers are widely used by oil and gas exploration engineers and technicians. The potential problems with PCs as the calendar crosses over to 01/01/2000 are well documented. Failures in PCs could hinder exploration efforts. Secondly drilling sites must be chosen after initial analysis. Drilling rigs, especially offshore rigs, contain numerous microprocessor controls. Microprocessor controls are also called process logic controllers (PLCs). They can be programmable, meaning the software controlling them can be modified, or the program can be permanently written to the controller. A permanently written controller is often called an embedded chip. I will refer to them as PLCs for the remainder of this paper to reduce the verbiage. Post-1999 potential problems with PLCs in the oil and gas industries documented (click archive, then click April, 1998) OR (Shemwell, Scott M., Jerry Dake, and Bruce Friedman, "Will the Millennium Bug Give Your Operations the Flu?", "World Oil", Houston TX: Gulf Publishing Company, April 1998, Volume 219, No. 4). In brief, a short term problem with either PCs, or PLCs in drilling rigs would temporarily hinder or suspend exploration work. Any long term problem would eventually impact the supply situation of natural gas. This is a real possibility.

Once a well is drilled, and gas is found in commercially profitable quantities and sufficient pressure, the well must be put into production. Production is the second major segment of the natural gas industry. First the well must be completed. Various control mechanisms must be installed, and the well must be connected to a gathering line. The completed well may have various automated (computerized) controls associated with it. For an offshore well, the drilling platform is removed and a production platform is installed. Like a drilling platform, a production platform is equipped with a multitude of PLCs. Also there is the pipeline transporting the gas from the offshore platform to the onshore extraction or processing plant. This pipeline runs along the bottom of the gulf or sea to shore and is not easily accessible. Recall that 27% of natural gas produced comes from offshore wells. Failures in offshore production platforms would quickly impact the supply of natural gas. Here is a brief description of how gas moves from the well into the transmission system.

The raw natural gas that flows from a well must be cleaned and treated. A pipe called a gathering line carries the gas from the well to an extraction unit, which removes such impurities as dust, sulfur, and water. The gas may then flow to nearby processing plants, which remove butane, propane, natural gasoline, and other substances not needed in the fuel. (The World Book Encyclopedia, Chicago: World Book, Inc., 1988, Vol. 8, pp. 53).

Next letís review transmission and distribution.

The processed natural gas is then fed into underground, long-distance transmission pipelines, which carry it to cities and towns along their routes. Gas is sent through transmission pipelines under tremendous pressures - usually 1000 pounds per square inch (70 kilograms per square centimeter). The pressure drops along the route because of the friction of the gas against the pipe walls. It also falls when communities remove gas. Compressor Stations along the line restore high pressure and push the gas on to its farthest destination. Many lines have automatically operated stations that increase or decrease the pressure to meet the demands of various communities. Gas usually travels through pipelines at about 15 miles (24 kilometers) per hour...

Inspectors on foot and in airplanes check continually for conditions that might damage the pipelines... In addition, instruments installed along pipelines automatically report leaks and other faulty conditions.

In cities and towns, distribution lines carry the gas to consumers. There are two kinds of distribution lines - mains and individual service lines. Mains are large pipes connected to the transmission pipelines. Service lines are smaller pipes that branch out from the mains. The service lines carry the fuel sold by gas utility companies to homes, factories, restaurants, hotels, and other buildings. (Ibid. pp. 53,56).

First, the above cited material makes it clear there is considerable use of automation in the transmission and distribution of natural gas. There are both instruments (PLCs) installed along the lines, and numerous PLCs in the compressor stations. If any of these PLCs are involved in event monitoring, which some are, then they would be logging times and dates. That makes them susceptible to the millennium bug. Regulator stations decrease the pressure when gas moves from a main to a service line in the distribution system. Again date sensitive PLCs are present in many regulator stations. Also there are larger gas control centers which make extensive use of PCs, servers and networks. PCs manufactured as late as 1997 may have date related problems as January 1, 2000 is reached. What are the implications of PC failures, or reversions to 1980 or 1984 dates, in a gas control system come Jan. 1, 2000?

The gas that moves through a pipeline must be measured. It has to be measured when it enters the transmission system, and it has to be measured again each time it passes into another companyís pipeline. There are gas measurement computers which obviously have to measure a volume of natural gas over a time interval. For example, they would measure something like so many thousands of cubic feet per second. Are these gas measurement computers year 2000 compliant? If some are not, then there is a major accounting problem even if the pipeline companies can still successfully move the gas. If a company cannot properly measure and bill for gas, it could either get sued in court or possibly even go bankrupt.

PLCs are real time systems currently in operation, and how will we know they will work correctly when Jan. 1, 2000 arrives? Real time systems are very difficult to test. You canít take them off-line for testing, if you need to run them 24 hours a day to maintain your gas pipeline system. There would have to be sufficient capacity on an alternate line to shut a line down for testing. Even if a line could be shut down, it is impossible to advance the date on PLCs where the software is permanently etched on the chip.

Gas storage faces basically the same issues as transmission and distribution in relation to PLCs and gas measurement computers. Measurement definitely has a date sensitivity. Remember, January 1, 2000 will be in the dead of winter, when withdrawals from storage are essential to maintaining adequate throughput in the pipelines that supply homes and businesses. I have briefly reviewed the use of computers in the five major segments of the natural gas industry. A major issue must now be discussed. No particular transmission pipeline or distribution company runs its system in isolation from other pipelines. In fact there is an integrated North American natural gas production, transmission, storage and distribution system. As noted earlier there are 1,300,000 miles of transmission and main distribution pipelines in North America. Gas is moved from the southwestern U.S. to the highly populated eastern United States by about four major pipeline companies. The Trans-Canada pipeline ties in with U.S. pipeline companies in the northern United States. For example, Trans-Canada ties in with National Fuelís system at Lewiston, NY. Specifically they meet at the bottom of the Niagara River halfway across.

Therefore any significant shutdown of the production system would within a few days severely impact the transmission and distribution systems. A shutdown in any of the major transmission pipelines would quickly impact the remainder of the transmission system and the distribution system. Problems with withdrawals at any significant number of storage fields in the middle of winter would have a large impact on the distribution system. With the high level of use of PCs, networks, servers, and process logic controllers in all segments of the natural gas industry, the possibility of various failures taking place once January 1, 2000 is reached is high. The millennium bug could possibly hit the natural gas production, transmission, distribution, and storage network quite hard. Why do I come to this conclusion?

As mentioned earlier there are 288,000 gas wells, 125 pipeline companies, and 1200 distribution companies in the U.S. Who is coordinating Y2K repairs among all these producers, transmitters, and distributors? There is no group or managerial body systematically doing this. The American Gas Association website recently added a page entitled "Operating and Engineering Year 2000 Issues for members." But we are just over 19 months from the deadline. It is rather late. The Interstate Natural Gas Association, and the Gas Research Institute are both conducting surveys of their members, according to Kathleen Hirning, the CIO of FERC. Surveys are very initial steps. Some of these companies may be doing very well in remediating their computer systems for Y2K compliance. Others, however, may not be. The question is,who knows? How many pipeline companies need to experience Y2K related failures, before the overall transmission system is substantially impacted? Recall that natural gas accounts for 25% of the energy consumed in the U.S. I find it astounding that as of mid 1998 there is no managerial body comprehensively measuring the progress of Y2K remediation in the nationwide natural gas industry, let alone prodding laggard companies into increased action or any action at all.

Recall also that 17% of natural gas produced is used to generate electricity. 11% of electric energy is produced in this fashion. Failures in the natural gas transmission and distribution network could heavily impact electricity generation. Conversely, the natural gas system could not be sustained for any length of time if there are long term electrical power outages. There is backup electricity generation capabilities in many instances, but it is not designed for long term usage of weeks or months. At this time, the writer cannot forecast one way or the other whether the natural gas system will perform reliably come January 1, 2000.

National Fuel Gas (NFG) of Buffalo, NY is an integrated natural gas company with annual revenues of about $1,200,000,000. NFG performed an initial analysis of the Y2K problem in 1992, and a detailed analysis and inventory in 1995. All information systems and non-information systems (process control) are in the process of remediation and testing as of this writing. All remediation and testing is scheduled to be completed by December 31, 1998. Everything is on schedule now. But what about the rest of the natural gas industry?

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