Piping up about life on the Energy Coast frontline
Last updated at 15:08, Tuesday, 21 February 2012
AT full capacity, Barrow’s gas terminals can produce up to eight per cent of the UK’s gas supply.
The gas comes in from a collection of fields in the East Irish Sea, the largest being South Morecambe, which was originally discovered back in 1974.
Production rigs export the gas via 39km subsea pipes which come above ground at Centrica’s gas terminals at Rampside in Barrow.
A lack of knowledge of how this gas then reaches our fires, boilers and cookers, and an interest in what a career at the gas terminals involves prompted me to spend the day at the coalface so to speak, to discover for myself what it is that goes on down at the terminals.
A tour round site is a somewhat eerie experience. I expected to see technicians bustling around, working on machinery but instead, the vast majority of the work at the terminals takes place from the control rooms.
The three gas terminals; South, North and Rivers, are housed on a 178-acre site, most of which is made up of miles and miles of pipework.
The control rooms themselves are made up of a series of computer screens, allowing technicians to monitor the flow of gas into the terminals and the status of the machinery. These rooms are the heart of the terminals and the handovers between shifts allow a smooth transition of reporting to take place.
Most of the gas processing is automated. The raw gas comes into the terminals via subsea pipes and is then treated and compressed to turn it into the end product.
The South terminal – where gas processing is a simpler procedure, first separates gas from condensate.
This condensate is then piped over to a storage facility at Barrow Docks and then shipped out to be used by the pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries – to make a host of products including plastic carrier bags.
The gas is then further processed and compressed, so it is at the correct pressure, and then connected to the National Grid pipe network, which distributes gas to homes and businesses across the UK.
At the North terminal, or “up North” as the South staff say, the process is much more complex. At the time it was first built, the terminal was one of the most sophisticated gas production plants in Europe, and still is.
The gas, water and condensate are separated, and then all carbon dioxide and half the nitrogen are removed using cryogenics.
The third arm of Centrica’s Barrow facility is the Rivers Terminal, owned by ConocoPhillips but managed and operated by Centrica.
Gas coming from the Rivers Field contains hydrogen sulphide, a highly toxic and potentially lethal compound. Because of its presence, a walk around the North and Rivers terminals requires an emergency breathing apparatus kit to be worn.
The hydrogen sulphide is removed from the gas and converted into sulphuric acid, then sold onto industry for other uses.
I spent some time with Peter Horne, terminals manager, who spoke proudly of the role Centrica plays in the local economy.
“We think of ourselves as being one of the better employers in the area, certainly in terms of pay,” he says.
“Our average pay is probably higher than the local average because of the kind of people we need here, the higher levels of skills.”
And the benefits of working at the terminals are certainly impressive.
Not only do workers have access to childcare and a significantly subsidised canteen (a plate of chips costs 65 pence or soup and a roll costs 50 pence) but some staff are also part of Centrica’s flexi-scheme where they can opt to receive supermarket vouchers or free gym memberships.
Staff at the terminals admit they are obsessed with safety, and rightly so, the volume of flammable gases flowing through the site every day means there can be no shortcuts – no near misses ignored and this responsibility is shared by everyone.
Centrica’s portfolio describes the East Irish Sea gas fields as having been a “cornerstone asset since the company was formed” and understandably so. South Morecambe is the UK’s biggest gas reservoir.
Although the amount of gas produced from the South Morecambe field has reduced significantly in the last 25 years – as the amount of gas left reduces, so does the strength of flow, Centrica has already begun exploratory drilling in other nearby prospects.
The Rhyl field, 15 miles off Barrow, was discovered in 2009 and commercial production should begin later this year.
So employment opportunities at Barrow are far from limited; in fact, they’re increasing.
“We’ve had a very stable workforce over the last 30 years but that is changing now,” says Peter.
“We’re starting to see a real recruitment drive now and at the moment we have about 19 vacancies.”
The workforce at Barrow; close to 200, is mostly made up of long-standing employees, some of whom – like control room technician Phil Allan, have been at the terminals since it opened in the early 1980s.
“We have an incredibly skilled workforce here and as a company, Centrica rewards employees for their commitment to continually gaining more qualifications and experience,” says Peter.
“By encouraging an attitude of openness and communication, not only can we ensure safety, but also make sure everyone is happy in their work.”
First published at 13:13, Thursday, 16 February 2012
Published by http://www.nwemail.co.uk