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Interview - Mehdy Touil, LNG Operations Specialist, Solaris MCI

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and experience in the LNG industry?

A: I am an LNG operations specialist by trade. I started my career in Algeria. Algeria is one of the oldest LNG-producing countries. The first commercial export of LNG started in Algeria 1964, 60 years ago. I joined the Algerian Petroleum Institute and the first time I visited an LNG plant, it was the very first commercial LNG plant in the world, which started operation in 1964. It was an eye-opening experience for me but I didn't have the opportunity to work in the LNG space in Algeria. I was hired to work in the Sahara Desert, on some condensate fields in the south of Algeria. I worked for Sonatrach – Sonatrach is the largest African energy company in oil and gas. And in 2006, I got the opportunity to join Qatargas (which is now QatarEnergy). I joined Qatargas as a field operator at the very bottom of the ladder and I spent 11 years working in Qatar, which was really where I started learning about the LNG business from a technical perspective – about liquefaction, about the technology associated with it. And I joined Qatargas at the time when they were building the largest LNG trains in the world – which are still the largest LNG trains – so Qatargas was transitioning from a small LNG producer to the largest one in the world. It was really a great experience to witness the growth and expansion and all the new the new technology involved in this expansion. I started climbing the operations ladder, so I became senior operator then panel operator over the course of 11 years.

After 11 years at the same plant, it started feeling a bit boring, so I got the opportunity to move to the US, to the Cove Point LNG project. Unfortunately, I was not able to secure my H-1B visa, my working visa in the US, twice in a row. It didn't happen. So, if you cannot go to the US, you have to go to the extreme opposite, so I went to Russia. I joined the Novatek Yamal LNG project, which is still the world's northernmost industrial facility. I would say that it was the highlight of my career because it was a very challenging project, not only in terms of weather and the climate conditions in Western Siberia, but it was also a challenge because I was on my own. When I joined Qatargas, I joined with a group of my fellow Algerians, but there we were only three. But I was lucky that Novatek mobilized the best of the industry worldwide – I worked with the French, with Malaysians, Americans, Canadians – it was a really high-caliber startup team, and I learned a lot from that project. And I got the opportunity to move to Russia. I was living in Moscow with my family, so it was also a really nice cultural experience.

Then came the invasion of Ukraine, so plans changed. Due to very severe restrictions, we decided – me and my wife – to move, so we landed in Canada. First, I joined on Capstone. Capstone is a training company providing a competency program for liquefaction operators, so it’s really within my skillset. And recently, Capstone was acquired by Solaris. Solaris is a Vancouver-based engineering firm and very active in the LNG space. I moved from a training role to a front-end development operational support role, and this is what I am right now.

 

Q: What is it about the LNG industry that you find so interesting and drives your passion for everything LNG?

A: The LNG industry has always been a niche compared to other, larger sectors in the in the oil and gas industry, compared to refining or petrochemical. When I joined, the industry was still a few thousand operators worldwide – you had the legacy exporters like Algeria, Indonesia, Malaysia and Qatar more recently – but I entered the industry when things really started to change for the LNG sector. I joined the industry at the time when shale gas started becoming a name. And I remember when I was in Qatar, they were constructing the largest LNG carriers – the Q-Max and the Q-Flex classes – which were initially designed to export LNG from Qatar to the US. By the time Qatargas started commissioning the largest train in the world, Qatargas Train 4, the situation had totally flipped over. Cheniere started producing LNG and now the US is becoming the world's largest exporter of LNG. But the industry is still small compared to other industry, it is highly competitive. It is controversial if I say this, but it is still a clean an industry compared to petrochemical or refining. And it's growing so fast. A few people were not even aware of the name LNG a few years ago. But after the crisis in Ukraine, and all that’s happening around the world and the Suez Canal, now LNG is really in the spotlight, not only from a supply chain perspective, but from a geopolitical perspective. And now people are starting to really understand the place of natural gas in the global energy mix and the place of natural gas in the transition. I like to say that natural gas IS the transition, it's not part of it, it is the transition.

 

Q: You’ve been working in the LNG industry for a number of years now and across several continents and projects. What have been some of the major changes to the industry you’ve noticed in that time?

A: From a technology perspective, there was a dominance of two main suppliers of LNG technology. We had two main licenses – the Air Products C3MR license and ConocoPhillips’ Optimized Cascade. For decades, LNG was dominated by these two liquefaction processes. Now, we are moving from large-scale trains to smaller-scale trains using diverse liquefaction processes. You have Black & Veatch PRICO, you have Baker Hughes SMR technology, you have New Fortress working on its own platforms, you have floating LNG facilities becoming more popular. You have micro- to small-scale LNG, you have midscale LNG train facilities because they are easier to build and to finance and faster to put online and to bring cash equity partners onto projects. There are still some large-scale trains being constructed like Qatargas with its mega-expansion or like Mozambique. In the US we have the NextDecade Rio Grande LNG, in Canada we have the LNG Canada project, so there are still large-scale trains, but we've also seen the new projects being developed moving to midscale or small-scale facilities and modular construction.

 

Q: How do LNG export plants operate and run today compared to 20 years ago? What are some of the major technological or design changes / developments?

A: In terms of technology, there hasn't been any real significant change. The technology itself hasn't changed much, but more work is being carried out on optimizing the efficiency of the liquefaction plant. We have seen the introduction of new gas turbines, with fewer emissions – more efficient because it's all about energy savings. We have seen the introduction of electric motors instead of gas turbines to drive the refrigeration compressors, which are used to liquefy the gas, so this is something new, like Freeport LNG, Woodfibre LNG. The next project from ADNOC – Ruwais LNG – is going to go fully electrical, so this is new in the industry. There are still some setbacks in terms of reliability of electric motors, but I think in the future, it will become a more prominent way of operating LNG. But, again, I haven't seen any big leap in terms of technology, nothing breaking the norms.

 

Q: You’re organising this year the LNG Export Operations & Maintenance conference – what do you hope to achieve with the event?

A: Over 22 years of my career was in operations – in LNG operation, in the field, in the control room. I like to say that I was busy making LNG, and I never had the opportunity to attend any kind of event, conference or forum or whatever dedicated to LNG. First, because I didn't have the time – we are working shifts 12 hours a day so it's not the best situation for going to attend conferences. And because we are the core people running the trains, there was little chance that our management would release any operator to go and attend an LNG conference. It was a big no for us. And when Joshua reached out to me and proposed the idea of organizing an operations and maintenance track dedicated to people like me, who never had the opportunity to attend conferences, I was really excited about the prospect of contributing to this idea, and giving the chance to the unheard people of the industry to have a voice, to listen to their peers, to learn, to share experience, acquire knowledge and go beyond the fence of those LNG trains. So, it is really about giving a voice to my peers in the operations and maintenance community.

 

Q: What were some of the major operations & maintenance challenges which came out of your research for the event this year?

A: I would say there are four themes that we identified. During my research, I reached out to some of my connections within my network, in high-level positions. And the main challenges – we have workforce issues with finding the right expertise and experience to pre-commission, commission, start up and operate those trains. It's been a very big issue, especially in the US, because the US is still lacking enough LNG experience to operate all the trains being constructed. There is also the issue that if you look at the carbon footprint of LNG facilities, we are still not there in terms of optimizing flaring for LNG facilities. And I don't want to put the blame on LNG facilities alone because the flaring starts upstream, at the well, but we're still not there in terms of being efficient, and implementing efficient strategies for flaring. This is something that hopefully will be addressed during the conference. Also, we'll be looking at maintenance strategies. If we talk about operations and maintenance, people tend to associate these two terms together, but if you go to any LNG plant, they are separated. There is that silo approach to operations and maintenance operations working alone – usually, it's the operations department that is driving the other departments. So, I would like to evaluate and try to find other ways how those two core components of any LNG plants can work better in implementing excellence in strategies and operating the LNG trains, because maintenance is a big part of upholding the reliability of LNG trains.

 

Q: The importance of planning for operations early – during the plant design and engineering phase and involving the maintenance / operations teams from the get-go has come out as a big topic. Why do you think it’s so important to involve those teams early in the process?

A: We operations folks and my maintenance friends, we are never involved in the design of the LNG facilities. You have engineering, you have designers, you have project developers – they always bring in the operations or the maintenance team when everything has already been designed. When the front-end engineering design is completed, when it is too late and there is no budget to make any changes. We are all aware that once you start the plant, it is very expensive to implement any change and it's a situation of “deal with it” if you find something you don't like. There is room to implement an engineering design – it's very extremely difficult to do it and to justify it and to budget for it. Because before the start-up, there is money, there is a budget, there is the FID, funding – everything's there – but after you move to the steady state operations phase, there is no more budgeting for any kind of engineering change. So, I wanted to explore the benefits and the possibilities of bringing operational insights and perspective during the conceptual phase, and the design phase of any kind of LNG project, which could contribute to bringing a real operations perspective to the design, save money and avoid a lot of mistakes because you can bring in the best engineers in the world to look at the plants from an engineering perspective. You need the operational perspective too to achieve the best facility design.

 

Q: And have you seen anyone do this successfully?

A: No, not yet, and I hope we’re going to change that.

 

Q: Commissioning and start-up is also a big topic, particularly give the number of plants working towards commission at the moment. What in your opinion are some of the key secrets to a successful commissioning and start-up of a plant?

A: Bringing in experienced people – people who have had the opportunity to start up similar facilities. You don't have that much experience in the United States and unfortunately, a lot of skilled people are retiring from the industry. I've seen with, I would say, a moderate level of success, people from other industries – like from refining or from petrochemicals – being involved in commissioning. They can help, they can provide support, but once you reach the more critical phase of start-up, which is when you start entering the cryogenic sections of the LNG train, you really need someone with LNG experience. But, again, this is an issue right now, so sometimes you have no choice. You can get LNG experience from the top but you need LNG experience in the field. The guys that operate the trains, that open and close the valves – you need people with LNG knowledge. This is really essential in ensuring a successful start-up.

 

Q: What do you think the impact of the current pause on LNG export permits will have on the industry in the US and further afield?

A: I've seen people trying to connect the latest announcements from QatarEnergy that they are adding two mega-trains, adding a third phase to what they call the king of the LNG industry, because it's already the largest expansion ever in the industry. I don't think this kind of project is decided based upon a policy change made a few weeks ago, so I don't think it is related. But people are watching, of course, outside the US. And the pause will take several months, we don't know the outcome yet. It is directly connected to the outcome of the next presidential election. I don't want to give any prediction, but it looks almost like a given who will be in the White House. I would say from my discussions with several LNG developers in the US, they are not happy with the pause, but they are quite optimistic about the final outcome. They know that at the end, their projects will move forward, so they're not really worried about it. It has impacted some offtake agreements and negotiations. If you want to secure an offtake agreement, if you are a buyer, you don't want to start negotiating with someone whose project is being paused for maybe 12-14 months, so they are going to other places where there are no restrictions, which is something I can quite understand. But, again, I wouldn't worry too much about the final outcome for LNG projects in the US.

 

Q: What is your outlook for the LNG industry over the next decade and where do you see the industry in ten years’ time?

A: Again, natural gas is the transition. All projections and forecasts, they include natural gas as the real pillar of the energy transition. You can bring hydrogen into the picture, you can bring in methanol, you can bring whatever you want into the picture, but there is no other source of energy with the same infrastructure, the same established trade for decades like LNG. You have everything in place to continue providing cheap, accessible energy for people that need it the most, if you talk about Southeast Asia, if you talk about African countries. Yes, LNG projects are becoming much more difficult to finance because of the fossil fuel stigma attached to energy projects. But still, if you look at the long-term contracts being signed up to 2040 or 2050, some contracts just last year were being signed for 40 years with big majors. LNG has still a place in the energy mix for decades to come, so I wouldn't worry about the next 10 years.

Mehdy is the organiser of the LNG Export Operations & Maintenance track at this year's LNG Export NA Conference & Expo - for more information on his track please see the website here - https://www.lngexport.us/operations-maintenance

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