Sunday, July 27, 2008

10 Things I Wish I Knew About the Law When I Was an Engineer

The list below contains the top ten things Mr. Sowell wishes he had known about the law when he was practicing engineering in the U.S. Each of these items will be expanded and given a separate blog entry.

1. Process Safety and the workplace, OSHA, and the Clean Air Act

2. Trade secrets are important – competitive advantage – and how to protect them

3. Why a process patent is almost useless

4. Why a trademark is important

5. Copyright violations that get engineers into trouble

6. What an expert witness should and should not do

7. Constitutional rights in the workplace – Free Speech, Free Exercise of Religion, language codes, does privacy at work exist? Information privacy

8. Environmental regulations, whistle-blower issues, and environmental fines

9. What engineers can take with them to their next job – in their head

10. Conducting engineering business to avoid litigation, or at least minimize it

For more information, or to contact Mr. Sowell on a legal matter, please see his website at

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Speech to AIChE in Houston TX Sept 4 2008

Roger Sowell presented the keynote address at the September 4, 2008 dinner meeting of the South Texas Section of American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in Houston, Texas. The meeting was in the Aramco Services building on Loop 610.


Legal Aspects of the March 23, 2005 Explosion at BP's Texas City Refinery
by Roger E. Sowell, Esq.

The deadly explosion and fire of March 23, 2005 killed 15 and injured 170 others. This explosion has reportedly cost BP more than $2.1 billion in legal settlements. Additional millions will be or have been spent to repair the damaged refinery units.

The explosion was caused by a series of errors while starting up a distillation tower at the C5/C6 Isomerization Unit following a scheduled shutdown for maintenance. The presentation briefly reviews the events of the startup, and other factors that contributed to the deaths and injuries.

Next, the legal setting at this refinery is outlined, including some of the legal theories of liability. These include criminal violations of the Clean Air Act, the torts of negligence and wrongful death, engineering professional malpractice, and violations of other regulations.

The presentation then discusses important actions taken by Federal agencies as a result of this explosion, and that impact refineries. The agencies include the Chemical Safety Board, OSHA, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

To conclude, several do's and don'ts are given. Designers and operators of refineries and chemical plants should be aware of these, to enhance process safety.

(Most information presented is taken from public domain sources. Any copyrighted material is used under a fair use exemption to the copyright laws).

Post-presentation update: The South Texas Section meeting of AIChE included approximately 100 people, ranging from retired engineers to those just out of college. I was particularly pleased to have classmates, family, and many friends in the audience.

The audience was very knowledgeable about the explosion, as might be expected in Houston very near the refinery in Texas City. The questions during and after the speech were excellent. This topic, legal aspects of refinery explosions, continues to generate keen interest among the engineering and legal communities.

Houston is Mr. Sowell's hometown, where he grew up and started his engineering career.

He is a California attorney and represents oil refining companies, among other clients. For more information on the legal services Mr. Sowell provides to clients, or to have Mr. Sowell speak on energy and legal topics to your organization, see his website at

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Valero Sunray Refinery Explosion 2007

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, CSB, released yesterday their findings on the causes of the explosion and fire at Valero's oil refinery in Sunray, Texas that occurred in February, 2007. They concluded that the cold weather caused accumulated water to freeze and split a pipe elbow. The split allowed high pressure propane to escape when the ice thawed, which then ignited. Sunray is in the far north of the Texas Panhandle, where the temperature drops below freezing for many weeks every winter.

The pipe elbow was isolated from other piping by block valves, and had no flow through that elbow. However, one of the valves leaked, allowing propane and water to enter the elbow. The accumulated water, being much heavier than propane, settled to the bottom of the elbow and eventually froze. The photo on the CSB website shows the elbow connects a horizontal run of pipe with a vertical run of pipe above. Thus, liquid leaking from a valve in the vertical run, above the elbow, would run down by gravity into the elbow and settle near the nearly-horizontal portion of the elbow.

The CSB report criticizes Valero for not recognizing that this isolated elbow was a dead-leg, or segment of pipe with no flow.

However, it should be pointed out that this refinery regularly experiences freezing weather, and has done so for many decades. The refinery personnel are aware of the hazards from freezing weather, especially the formation of ice. They have successfully managed many winters without splitting pipes that caused a fire. In this instance, though, they overlooked a potential hazard.

Existing standards in the industry require a double-block and bleed system, or a blind flange to prevent leakage. The double-block and bleed uses two block valves in series, with a small spool piece of pipe in between. The spool piece has a drain valve, or bleed valve, open to the atmosphere. Any leakage from either block valve will drain into the spool piece, and run out through the bleed valve. This design is not suitable for propane systems because propane vaporizes into the atmosphere and is highly flammable and explosive. The double-block and bleed design is more suited to heavier hydrocarbons.

The blind flange would have been appropriate. In this design, the piping must be isolated, drained, purged, then the elbow removed. Two blind flanges are installed on the ends of the piping that had connected to the elbow. This provides a positive seal and ensures that no material leaks.

Freezing water is not the only potential hazard that can split piping. Engineers are aware that many liquids can expand due to an increase in temperature. The thermal expansion is an extremely strong force and can easily split pipes or leak at flanges. Therefore, operators take special care to ensure that such liquids are not blocked in without a pressure relief device.

For more information on Mr. Sowell and his law practice, please see

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Refinery Expert Witness

It is vitally important that an attorney understand an expert witness. As stated in an earlier post on this blog, an attorney who fails to meet his obligation with respect to an expert witness is liable for malpractice in California. Expert witnesses may testify for the plaintiff or the defense. In either event, the party who hired the expert gets to ask the expert questions on direct examination, and ask the opponent's expert questions on cross-examination.

Mr. Sowell had an opportunity as an engineer to interact with a very senior engineer who was truly an expert in refining. The man was a genius, a registered professional engineer, and knew virtually everything about each refinery unit's design, chemical reactions, catalysts, process conditions, process control, startup, shutdown, optimization, simulation and data analysis, the list seemed endless. There was truly no end to the man's knowledge. His experience spanned more than 40 years.

The only problem was that he was so brilliant, most people could not understand him. As is fairly common with geniuses, he had a tendency to only verbalize the high points, and skipped over the mundane points. Mr. Sowell was assigned to work with the genius, and try to decipher what he said and wrote. There was some urgency, because if the genius left the company, his knowledge would depart, too.

After getting over his awe and feelings of inadequacy, Mr. Sowell learned how to draw the genius out and get good explanations for what he was trying to communicate. Everyone was pleased, and from then on Mr. Sowell was assigned as the interpreter for the genius.

This successful experience in dealing with a difficult expert serves Mr. Sowell well in his law practice. With that, and his own experience gained in 20 years of working in refineries with all manner of engineers and technicians, Mr. Sowell knows how refineries and chemical plants are designed and operate. He also knows what questions to ask when an expert witness is brought in. Mr. Sowell also can detect wrong answers, and inconsistent testimonies.

For more information on how Mr. Sowell can assist other counsel when dealing with expert witnesses, please see his website at, and the tab For Attorneys.

Trade Secrets and Refineries

Disclaimer: the facts of this incident are somewhat modified to protect the companies and the trade secrets. They are based on an actual incident.

A chemical company had difficulty meeting the required separation of a solids-liquid mixture when using separation equipment that had been specified and installed in the plant. The problem was a common one in separations of liquids and solids, that is, too much liquid remained in the solids. The solids were a waste product, but the liquid was valuable. If the liquid in the reject solids could be reduced, less would be wasted and more product would be sold. A high-priority project to study the problem and modify the equipment was successful.

Following the equipment modifications, several new engineers were hired. As part of their orientation to the plant, they were given a thorough tour of each operating area and an explanation of each part of the process. The modifications to the separation equipment were described, along with the problem that the modifications solved. However, no one mentioned to the new engineers that this problem was common among all such plants, and that the solution was to be kept a secret. The new engineers were told that this solution increased the plant's profits.

The new engineers went to an industry convention and were drawn into a conversation with engineers from a competitor. The competitor managed to learn what the new engineers knew about the separation equipment, and what parameters were changed to obtain the desired performance.

A few days later, one of the senior engineers learned what one of the new engineers had said. He chastised the new engineers for giving away a competitive advantage.

There were no grounds for a trade secret lawsuit, because the technical information had not been properly protected. No one had told the new engineers this information was secret, nor that it could assist a competitor. The new engineers were right out of university and had no industry experience.

The lessons to be taken from this true incident include:

1) Recognize what could be a competitive advantage,

2) Take the necessary steps to protect the information, either as trade secret or possibly a patent,

3) Communicate with all employees that this information is important, perhaps vital, to your company, and it is not to be disclosed outside the company. This should be done in writing.

Many companies do not believe they have anything that could possibly be a trade secret, or information that could be used to a competitor's advantage. Even in process plants that have been running for decades, like refineries in the U.S., this is just not true. Situations similar to the one described above occur often, and should be protected. Often it is the case that process improvements, especially in process control, may deserve trade secret protection.

When employees change companies and go to work for a competitor, the information they take with them could be used by the competitor to their advantage. Trade secret protection can prevent this.

Mr. Sowell is particularly well-suited to provide legal advice in this area, with his training in trade secret law, background in chemical engineering, and 20 years experience in refineries and other process plants. For more information, please see his website at

New Refinery Cancelled

Shell today announced it will no longer design and build a new refinery that was to be sited in Ontario, Canada near its existing refinery in Sarnia.

The company stated that uncertainty as to the product market, and escalating construction costs figured heavily in their decision not to proceed.

Recent decreases in demand for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, compared to year-ago demand, may have had an impact. In the United States, the weekly petroleum inventory report from Energy Information Agency, EIA, shows a significant decline in petroleum demand for the past several weeks. This is largely due to the unprecedented high prices for petroleum products. Product demand has declined by approximately two percent, when in previous years the demand has increased by one to two percent.

It remains to be seen if this is a temporary drop in demand, or if U.S. consumers have changed their habits for the long term. Domestic factors that support a decrease in petroleum demand include poor sales of gas-guzzling vehicles such as SUVs and pickups, robust sales of small cars and especially hybrid vehicles, and an increase in ridership on mass transit systems. Also, U.S. airlines are cutting their fleets and grounding airplanes. The sale of subsidized ethanol may also contribute to the decrease in petroleum product demand. Certainly, the recent increase in the CAFE standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 will decrease demand.

Contrary factors that will increase demand include the ever-growing population, sprawling suburbs that increase commuting distances, and an increasing economy, although it is increasing slowly at this time.

Beyond the U.S. borders, other factors are at work. First, sales of the Tata Motors car in India are reported to be brisk. This will increase global demand for refined products. Second, a very large refinery is being commissioned in India near Mombai, owned by Reliance Industries. At 580,000 barrels per day, it is one of the largest refineries in the world. It is due on-line in September 2008. The Reliance Industries refinery will export products initially, until domestic demand in India absorbs the output.

It is likely that the end of the U.S. summer driving season, and the export of petroleum products from India will combine to reduce gasoline prices.

Mr. Sowell is an attorney who represents refining companies and other operating companies in the process industries. Mr. Sowell holds a B.S. in chemical engineering and worked for more than 20 years in refineries and other process plants world-wide. His website is