Aboveground storage tanks (ASTs) are vital to the oil and gas industry—they store diesel fuel, gasoline, NGL, propane, frack water and a wide range of other fluids. At the same time, these tanks can be a subject of concern to the general public, local authorities and regulators who might worry about the potential for leaks, explosions and fires.

Accordingly, ASTs are subject to an ever-changing thicket of regulations, depending on factors such as the size of the tank, its contents and nearby land uses.

Previously, newspaper ads, printed fliers and town hall meetings were the usual ways to provide information to the public. Now IT, including public websites, email lists and social media such as Twitter and Facebook, can provide information to the public in ways that they find familiar.

The use of electronic communication and tools delivered through websites and applications is increasingly mandated by regulatory agencies.

Companies already feeling squeezed by a difficult hydrocarbons market may not want to add to the workload of their employees by using labor-intensive or traditional methods to gather and frequently update information on all of their ASTs. Fortunately, current IT makes it easier to gather, manage and convey the information that the public, and potentially government, requires—and to do it cost-effectively.

Field-friendly devices, software
Cataloging and inspecting AST assets is a familiar necessity to any operator. The information that is gathered might vary by state, stored liquid, operator, etc., so a flexible software solution is called for.

Ruggedized tablets running the right software can accept data input onsite and in milliseconds provide an answer in a repeatable way while vastly reducing the chance for an error. The software can check spelling, provide lists of preferred terms or ranges of acceptable values and also perform calculations to see if items are within acceptable limits.

If a value is unacceptable, the user can receive feedback, potentially expediting repairs or maintenance tickets to rectify the situation. Field data, photos, sketches and many other items can be transferred directly into reporting formats—reducing time from data collection to a finished report for an agency.

In generating field reports from an AST facility, a well-designed data-gathering system follows a linear procedure and collects observations, measurements and data with one visit to the site. The process prompts the user to start at the periphery, typically determining the land uses around the facility. GPS and GIS technology can help measure the distance to any sensitive land uses such as a wetland or human habitation. Changes from previous site conditions can be noted. The software also should require the inspector to enter information on the likely direction of flow of any releases if the secondary containment were to be breached.

Inspection can then move on to the tank itself—its condition, piping, associated valves, pumping, electrical and other safety factors.

Good software walks the inspector through the necessary steps, modified to meet the requirements of the state, federal or other applicable regulatory authorities, while the crew is still onsite.

This example of the interface for AST inspection shows calculations and dependencies. Based on the entered measurements, the program calculates values for several data types, shown with a solid gray background. If the calculated values fail to meet minimum specifications for available storage or freeboard, the values are displayed in red. (Source: Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc.)

Managing data to support prompt action
Experience in developing field-friendly inspection software has found that the technology makes it easy to support action taken right away. For example, if the inspection team discovers that an earthen secondary containment berm does not meet current standards, maintenance teams can take action immediately. Next, updated data based on the maintenance actions are collected, and the results are verified to meet requirements using the application.

Using an Internet connection and managing the data in an electronic form also makes it easy to transmit a report instantly to a central database to plan any further work needed to keep a facility in compliance.

Staff no longer need to key the information found on paper inspection reports into a computer upon return to an office environment, improving the accuracy of the information, boosting the chances that the calculations and findings can be replicated and reducing the amount of time staff need to spend on tedious work.

Conveying AST data
Capturing accurate data at the source through electronic forms that help inspectors gather the right data also helps with the need to keep the general public, news media, environmental organizations, political leaders and regulatory bodies informed about management of an AST.

Good software facilitates the gathering of accurate data so that websites, including dashboards that summarize the information, are credible, accurate and current.

Case study
When a leak from an AST contaminated the Elk River and consequently the water supply of Charleston, W.Va., with crude-4 methylcyclohexanemethanol in January 2014, state legislators acted quickly. They passed legislation requiring owners of ASTs capable of holding 1,320 gal or more to inventory, register and prepare emergency response plans for all affected tanks and for companies to complete the efforts in a matter of months.

This bill, passed in April 2014, required that ASTs in the state be registered by Oct. 1, 2014, and complete spill prevention response plans for each tank by Dec. 3, 2014. Inspections, certifications and, as required, statements from licensed professionals had to be accomplished by Jan. 1, 2015.

Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., with more than 3,500 well locations plus compressor stations in West Virginia, had between 1,500 and 1,600 tanks meeting the legislation’s specified minimum size. The company had experience working with Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc. (CEC) on large-scale data collection and reporting projects and so reached out once again to CEC to develop a possible solution.

CEC’s Project Manager Jim Pinta, Ph.D., understood the logistical challenges established by the volume of required data and scheduled deadlines. Pinta addressed the challenges by combining a proven project management philosophy with an innovative way to improve data collection, compilation and reporting. This original approach focused on the need to efficiently and accurately perform repetitive data collection efforts, which significantly reduced the time necessary for data compilation such as transposing hand-written information from paper sheets into an electronic format or the labeling of digital photographs and the production of photographic logs.

Additionally, the approach would focus on correctly gathering all the necessary information from field inspections during a single visit to each site and allow a daily electronic review of data collection from a project area that spanned several counties.

To do this, CEC built a mobile software application that standardized information gathering, including digital pictures, into a series of electronic forms. The AST application allowed CEC and Cabot staff to verify existing information and guided inspection teams through the process of gathering all the necessary information on each tank, including its location, at least one digital photograph, and the surrounding land uses and local topography, which were required for preparing the emergency
response plan.

The application also prompted the inspection team through collecting information on the size and contents of each tank and the condition of the tank and its hardware such as pumps, pipes and valves. A particularly crucial inspection item was assessing the effectiveness of the tank’s secondary containment system.

The AST application includes calculations that provide real-time immediate feedback regarding whether the secondary containment was of sufficient volume to contain the contents of the associated tank(s).

This solution, developed and deployed by CEC, helped Cabot meet the requirements of the legislation in a cost-effective manner across a wide geographic area and in some highly remote locations.