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Proposed Davis Refinery claims emissions, leak monitoring, winter readiness

Bill Prentice, CEO of Meridian Energy Group, which is building the Davis Refinery west of Belfield, is pictured in a file photo. (Press file photo)

Meridian Energy Group wants to build the most sophisticated and state-of-the-art oil refinery to date in North Dakota, an aim they think they can reach thanks to key, cutting-edge technologies.

A type of sensor that will allow the refinery to detect faults within pipes before they turn into breaks, spills or leaks has been widely reported. According to William Prentice, CEO of Meridian Energy, and several teams of engineers from Vespica USA, Zia Engineering and Meridian's in-house engineering team, the sensors they'll be using in the proposed Davis Refinery will be able to see where others could not.

"There is no refinery like this one on the planet," Prentice said in a written response to questions submitted by the Press. "Optical imaging monitoring sensors have been around for years, but better technology has improved them greatly from even a few years back. These camera sensors use infrared imaging to detect VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) leaks that the naked eye cannot see. These infrared imaging sensors allow you to detect leaks much earlier than before, so you can take immediate action to fix them."

Prentice said that this is a marked improvement from conventional leak detection and repair that would have flanges and connections checked "on a rotational basis with a hand-held sensing monitor." This isn't to say that the new systems won't require a human touch—in fact, a major component to their efficacy will be the skill of the workforce putting the piping together.

"Of course, our first line of defense against having any VOC leaks at all is to have a highly-skilled workforce putting together piping flange joints and equipment using API (American Petroleum Institute) recommended connection specifications," Prentice said.

It's not just leaks that are going to be prevented by the sophisticated sensory systems—the threat of emissions, and the want to curb them, will be met head-on by these technologies as well, Prentice claims.

"Among other things, Meridian will employ the comprehensive LDAR capability described above, based on OGI (Optical Gas Imaging technology) to monitor fugitive emissions throughout the Refinery during operations," Prentice said. "In other words, modern technology allows Meridian to show actual emissions, and its compliance, continuously and at all times during operations."

This also will serve to allow Meridian to address a legal requirement as well, as the law dictates they must meet certain emissions requirements at all times.

"These systems will enable Meridian to leave no doubt as to its compliance," Prentice said. "The Davis operations team will have 24/7 access to Davis OGI performance dashboards to monitor the health of the refinery, as will the North Dakota Department of Health and other regulating entities."

The North Dakota Department of Health confirmed that it certainly is possible for there to be a continuous access to Davis' emissions standards, though according to Terry O'Clair, director of the Air Quality Division, there is more work to be done with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Park Service and other organizations to determine the details.

"They do have clean emissions, I'll give them that," O'Clair said. "As to how we're going to incorporate that into the permit, we still have some hurdles to jump."

The NDDoH is still evaluating public comments regarding the proposed facility, and O'Clair said it's likely to be another two months before they reach a permitting decision.

The refinery will be equipped with a fully automated emissions monitoring system throughout the facility to continuously measure and report all furnace stacks, vapor recovery systems and fugitive emission sources, Prentice said. Personnel will be trained and equipped to respond to "any abnormal conditions" so as to "minimize the extent and duration of any deviations."

"This will include the best available combustion control hardware and software to ensure furnaces and boilers are operating within acceptable ranges for stable operation and long-term equipment reliability," Prentice said.

History has demonstrated that even the greatest engineering feats can be undone—as in the case of the Titanic—by ice, a resource North Dakota produces in abundance. As some public comments noted at a recent meeting on the topic of the refinery, there's concern that this technology won't hold up in North Dakota's winter.

Prentice acknowledged that there are definite design differences between cold weather and warm weather facilities, but said the industry has experience in dealing with extreme cold conditions.

"Winterization is an extremely important part of maintaining a safe and reliable refinery in operation. Just one small critical piece of equipment freezing can cause an emergency shutdown of your whole plant," he said. "I've worked in refineries in Texas and spent five winters at a refinery in upper Alberta, Canada. Proper winterization is just as important in both regions.

"A region like North Dakota merely requires a higher degree of winterization for a longer period of time than in other, more temperate regions," he said. "No new technologies exist for this. Just good old fashion proper winterization involving heat tracing, insulation, heated hoardings, and special emphasis on protecting critical instrumentation."

Perhaps most critically, Prentice said the winter challenge will be faced with a well-seasoned staff—you'll need to know how to work in the cold if you want to work at Davis.

"We do not see the climate in North Dakota as being an issue," He said. "The Operations staff for Davis refinery will require extensive cold climate refinery experience. Winterization during the design and construction phase is, and will always be, a priority. The winterization program will be something that has us ready for each winter season. However, I have been around long enough to know you never let your guard down during cold weather, so you always check for what issues could cause potential problems on cold days."

Blizzards, lightning and extreme weather have also been factored in, Prentice said, with action plans prepared by each member of the Operations staff.

"All operating facilities in the U.S. are required to perform a hazard and operability review during design and a pre-start-up safety review prior to operation," Prentice said. "These exercises consider any possible scenario for equipment failure and operating upsets, as well as the effects of external factors such as weather and transportation. Safeguards are built into the design wherever possible in order to eliminate or mitigate any risk or effect."