Inspectioneering Journal

Executive Q&A with Clay White, Director of Mechanical Integrity for Phillips 66

By Greg Alvarado, Chief Editor at Inspectioneering. This article appears in the March/April 2017 issue of Inspectioneering Journal.

Inspectioneering Founder and Chief Editor, Greg Alvarado, recently had the privilege to sit down with Clay White, Director of Mechanical Integrity for Phillips 66 (Downstream), and discuss the world of fixed equipment reliability in the refining and petrochemical industry. Clay has nearly 35 years of experience in fixed equipment reliability in this industry, specifically in the areas of Material Science, Inspection, Corrosion Engineering, and Risk Based Inspection. He is currently the co-chair of the API Inspection Summit and has been heavily involved as either a Chair, or a Co-Chair of several very important recommended practices in the industry, like API RP 580 and API RP 581. In fact, he was involved in both of those documents since their inception in the early 90’s.

In addition, Clay previously served as Chairman of the API Subcommittee on Inspection (SCI). He’s currently Phillips 66’s Rep to the Committee on Refining Equipment (CRE). He has also given numerous presentations at various conferences and organizational events like the NPRA which is now known as AFPM or the American Fuels & Petrochemical Manufacturers Association, as well as different API events around the world. And another very unique thing about Clay is he has sat on both sides of the table; he has spent many years of his career as a consultant and also many years as an owner-operator. Lastly, we are honored to have Clay serve as a member of the 2017-2018 Inspectioneering Editorial Board. He and the other esteemed members will be guiding the direction of the Journal for years to come.

Now let’s get to the discussion. We hope you find the exchange both interesting and informative.

Greg Alvarado: I’d like to begin by learning a little more about your professional journey. What did you want to be when you were growing up? When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career as an engineer?

Clay White (CW): I always thought I'd be a pilot actually growing up. So I was on that path up until my sophomore year in college. I assumed I would fly for the military and later become a commercial pilot. My uncle was a commercial pilot and I always thought that was a cool thing. But I needed a job in between my sophomore and junior year in college. My father was a Petroleum Engineer for Tenneco and they had a materials / mechanical engineering lab in Houston. He arranged for me to get a summer job helping out at the lab. I'd always been interested in all things mechanical,  how they worked and why things failed or broke. So it was a natural fit. I really took to the failure analysis type work and enjoyed the material science and corrosion sides of it. After that summer job I decided that when I went back to school to change my studies toward materials and welding. So that's how I grew into that position or that role.

So after that, did you first go to work for an owner-operator or did you go to work for consulting company?

CW: No, actually my first job coming out of A&M was working in a materials and failure analysis lab. So I went to work for a company called FMC which was a large conglomerate that had both petrochemical and defense industry and other companies, like Link-Belt Cranes. I worked in the corporate lab in California and started my career doing lots of production failure analysis and materials engineering work for a few years. I did that about four years before coming back to Texas and starting with Exxon as a Fixed Equipment Engineer for the Baytown Chemical Plant.

Wow, so from Texas to California back to Texas; all in the oil industry. What people, in addition to your father and the people you met along the way, influenced the path that you took?

CW: I would say, mostly my dad. But when I was in high school, I liked to build engines and cars. I had multiple different old cars that I had fixed up and was always interested in building performance engines. An older friend of my dad's worked for a company called Magabar which did drilling muds and fluids. And he knew I was interested in cars, He had asked me to build an engine for his hunting vehicle that they used to take clients hunting on leases. So I built him a turbocharged 350 engine. We rode around in that thing for a season (even took me hunting with him). Eventually one of the connecting rods for a piston failed. When I disassembled the engine, the failure occurred through the rod (not at a bolt or something more obvious). I was always interested in what caused that connecting rod to fail in that way. Through conversations with my friend and talking about that failure, I think that probably was one of the main catalysts to get me even more interested in studying the material science side and looking at failure analysis. He's probably the other influence in my life in that affected my choice of a profession.

You started out working as an owner-operator with Exxon, and then you went to work as a consultant. What were the biggest differences for you in between those two roles? Were there any things that you had to change about the way you looked at things or the way you worked when transitioning between the two?

CW: Yeah, I think as an owner-operator, you feel the ownership side a bit more, and your roles are a bit more defined as an owner-operator where you know what your job is specifically. You know how to work within that system and how you fit. And when you come over to the consulting side to work, the times that you and I spent at Equity, you never know exactly how your opinion and your recommendations will be perceived. So you really are asked to play different roles and need to be adaptable to the Client’s needs and understand what they are looking for. On a high level, they may think of you as the absolute truth, and the guru for this technical subject area. Then they're going listen to whatever you have to say. Of course, they may have already decided what the problem is and a course of action and just be using you for a sounding board (or anything in between). So I think the biggest challenge is really trying to understand and work with different people from the consulting side, on giving them the right practical advice and being able to understand and advise as to what are they really looking for.

On the positive side of consulting as a non-owner-operator, we had the ability to come up with concepts on engineering and product lines and services that we could market / promote, whereas I would not necessarily have that freedom as an owner-operator. So the door was really wide open on what we could actually develop. It was really more aimed around what type of service we thought made sense and how we could sell it or sell that idea or concept, from RBI, to piping systematization / circuitization type work, Integrity Operating Windows, or statistical analysis of data, etc. Those were the kinds of things that I really enjoyed working on at Equity, and that would've been a lot harder to do from within a company as an owner-user. So the ideas that you've had from working as an owner-user, and maybe had trouble getting started or moving, I think were a lot easier to work on and sell as ideas to others in the industry as a consultant. Then coming back to in an owner-user role, near the end of my career, with Phillips 66, at a higher level having worked in a large number of refineries around the country, I now have the ability to make changes and implement many of the concepts that were successful, to make a positive difference. Of course, it takes a little bit longer to make improvements and changes in larger corporations.

What do you think are three major challenges that we face in the process industries today when it comes to improving our performance in fixed-equipment reliability, and how much does regulatory pressure play into it? 

CW: The regulatory environment today is one of our biggest challenges. What concerns me, and having been on the development side of our industry-recommended practices and codes and standards from the API side, is the increasing pressure to soften or water down those regulations, because nobody wants to be held accountable for them at all times. Essentially, regulatory rules often hamper or sidetrack us in our ability to promote better, more effective ways of managing existing and new programs or new documents that bring about new concepts in safety and business improvement. A Shell or an Exxon or a Phillips 66 might be ahead of the curve in these regards. We are trying to bring our experience to bear to improve industry recommended practices by participation in API and other committees such as ASME, etc.

But the fear is that, for sites and companies that maybe haven't worked in those areas, once we produce that best practice RP document, it essentially could be held as RAGAGEP, or something that we’re required to comply with by law or inference. So it takes out that improvement cycle, really, by softening the requirements to the lowest common denominator. To me, I think that’s ultimately what regulators don't want, but by virtue of the way that they're interpreting and applying RAGAGEP rules today, the long-term effect, if we're not careful, is going to be softening or weakening our stance on mechanical integrity. So to me, that's one of the biggest challenges.

I think the other challenges are the same ones we’ve always dealt with. One of the biggest problems we have involves the quality of the implementation of the program itself, not the technical content of what you're doing. We can always improve our programs, but what I find is when you're looking at programs to go identify damage mechanisms, like HTHA, or low-silicone carbon steel for sulfidation, you're essentially looking for a needle in a haystack. These are typically multi-year, multimillion-dollar programs. It really takes a dedicated resource, almost like a project engineer, to run those types of programs well, to get good documentation and make sure you've gotten all the way through it. To me, that seems to be the biggest downfall: not doing very good implementation on those types of programs and lack of sustainability and waning attention over time. The other part of that, really, the third one, may be more on the data integration side. Our CMMS-type programs or IDMS-type programs and our data historians - I think proper, effective, and efficient data and work process integration is one of the biggest challenges we still have.

So we'll manage each program individually, or separately, and then at the end of the day, our data may be sitting in a spreadsheet or a one-off database, not communicating with each other, and you tend to go back through and reinvent the wheel. You have to relearn where those circuit breaks were; relearn what you knew about that system and circuit when you may have just looked at it a year ago for a different program. We're often not maximizing on the learning opportunity and putting it into an evergreen format so that you can continue to improve on it. You end up going back and relearning it. It seems like our human nature is to create a new program for every problem that comes along, versus step back and think about it, plan it out a little bit from a project perspective, and integrate it with tools we already have. 

So we have these new initiatives and these programs that we're implementing in the plants, but a lot of times as you know, they die off when that champion retires or moves on to someplace else. What do you think the keys are to sustainability for really good programs that we're trying to implement at the plants?

CW: You're right, you probably never will get around needing to have a good champion or owner for it, but you can get around some of the risk of losing their impact by having good systems and processes in place, and really having a good backbone for how you're going to record and document that data so it's not lost in the event the champion leaves; so it is sustainable. You do have to think about it when you design the programs upfront and keep the sustainability side of it in mind. If it's people-driven, it's never going to be sustainable. You have to have the right systems, programs, and procedures in place to make sure that you don't lose the sustainability side.

Then one of the other keys to that may well be engagement. Because we've realized we're not silos. We're actually integrated with one another and we affect one another in what we do, like operations, maintenance, inspection, and so forth. I know one of the big challenges is engagement. So somebody comes along with a new program like Integrity Operating Windows, and you want to get the operations people engaged. What are some of the keys that you've learned over the years to get the rest of the organization engaged?

CW: Training, education and awareness are important here. Every chance we get to do presentations for young engineers in our company, we'll stress that we're after operational excellence and mechanical integrity excellence. We’ll achieve compliance by pursuing these goals. And in order to have excellence, you have to have excellence in design, maintenance, operation, and inspection. You must have all of those or they're not going to work together to achieve that. So education is one of the things that we're really trying to work hard in our company to do. We want everyone to think about MI as a culture, as opposed to a program or product. You probably remember back in the day, a lot of times the mechanical integrity departments were actually embedded in safety departments. Well, that was a common way to arrange mechanical integrity. If you think about the safety culture back in the 80s, “safety” was a department. Who's responsible for that? Well, the safety department does that or checks that.

The culture today is everybody is trained to take accountability for their own safety, and everybody typically has the right to stop work or a process. And we drive this safety culture into everybody's head from day one coming into the plant. If we could effectively change mechanical integrity from being, "Oh, that's the inspector's job or his responsibility to make sure that we don't fail" to MI is "Everybody's job," we would have a much better environment for mechanical integrity. I think that's the shift change that we're after: to change the culture of MI from what we used to have in safety departments to what we have today in a corporate safety culture. 

Now, to change gears a little bit more, we've mentioned in the opening about your involvement in the industry, in the American Petroleum Institute and other organizations. What would you say to an individual who's on the fence about joining one of these committees and getting involved?

CW: I think it's an absolutely incredible experience that you're going to benefit from. Any one of those organizations, AFPM, API or NACE, is always working on standards, best practice documents and research that can help. It's very important to get involved in those committees. It’s the easiest way to get an excellent benchmark and perspective from other companies. I had the privilege of working years in a lot of different Refinery and Chemical Plant locations to get the experience I now have. But you can essentially get the same thing from talking with people at these conferences and at these meetings. I can't tell you how powerful it is for me to be able to pick up the phone and call my counterpart at Shell or Valero and discuss these problems. And I think the unwritten rule is that, as long as we're discussing safety issues and mechanical integrity issues, virtually everybody is very open to discussing those problems, how they solved the problem, or what are they doing to solve a problem in mechanical integrity. So just being able to meet your counterparts and network is extremely valuable. The bi-annual API Inspection Summit is a fantastic venue for networking, and you get to see different presentations centered around mechanical engineering, fixed equipment engineering, corrosion and materials, and inspection. There's no other event quite like it in our industry.

With all the work you've done over the years in the various areas, what do you see as the most exciting developments that have occurred in the world of inspection, mechanical integrity, and fixed equipment reliability over the last 10 years?

CW: It's hard to keep up with inspection technologies, so I think this would be no surprise to anybody watching or listening, but the advent of phased array and encoded processing for inspection data has really changed the game on how we look at and manage data. And that world is changing so fast with technology. There are always a lot of improvements. If you look at how much equipment we really inspect in a plant or unit in a given year, in terms of percent square foot, it's so small, a fraction of a percentage. So I always say that we have to either be really, really smart, or really, really lucky to be successful. I'd much rather try to be smart and use all the technology I can to help me get there than to depend on luck!

There are lots of other inspection technologies that have improved as well. I'm not going to dwell on all of the ones that we use or whatever I think the main advantages are, but I think technology from the inspection side is a key. And I think we're finally starting to see more and more software integration. There's a lot of pressure to combine historical stand-alone software packages with RBI and inspection, and I think that will help tremendously as well. For years we've struggled to try to figure out how to bridge programs like SAP and whatever your CMMS program is, and IDMS program, like UltraPIPE and PCMS. Bridging those together is only going to help us maintain that data better, make better decisions, and produce more sustainable MI programs within an integrated data and work processes environment.

What advances do you see over the next 10 years? What do you think the future holds for fixed equipment reliability and inspection?

CW: Well, I think with the integration of a lot of these products (inspection data management, risk analysis, stress / FFS analysis), we now have the ability to start thinking a little bit longer term and a little bit broader. One thing I've always been interested in seeing developed would be a way to do a total life cycle analysis for a piece of equipment, and really look at the cost. We make tradeoffs everyday when we're operating equipment. For example, “if I can increase this temperature here, I can get better yields from a particular process, but I know we're going to get some accelerated corrosion.” Or “if I can run an opportunity crude that maybe has higher sulfur or higher tan, I'm going to have some amount of more aggressive corrosion for this piece of equipment but potentially be more profitable running at a lower raw material cost.”

I think we're approaching the point where we can realistically start to look at the cost difference of pursuing an opportunity crude versus what it really costs us in terms of damage and reliability for that equipment. So that's one of the things I think would be really beneficial to do. And of course, there's lots of push and effort now on more opportunity crudes. So technology improvements, like being able to do real-time inspection monitoring for different types of damage, (thickness monitoring in real time for example), and compare that to changes in your crude slate or feedstock “diet” so you can actively look at corrosion and potential problems now, is another really big advantage.. That's good technology already being pretty widely used now, and I think that trend will continue.

How do you feel about the use of risk management and helping us pull these things together to better balance the safety and environmental pressures with the business objectives?  

CW: I think it's obviously the right approach. The challenge is getting the risk analysis right and balanced. Every company I know of has some kind of corporate risk matrix, and they try to use a risk-based approach on a lot of their decisions. To a degree, it's easier to determine the risk for equipment because a lot of it is more tangible and quantifiable, and less subjective in terms of determining what the consequence and likelihood factors are because these are structured and calculated approaches. 

But it's always difficult to manage those programs. Large programs are complicated programs, no matter which RBI type approach you're using. They are difficult to manage as standalone software programs, and they are not always well-integrated with other programs. Still to me, it's the best approach to use. But getting it right and maintaining it well has been an issue I think for most implementations or most sites employing RBI-type technologies.

Well it's a little bit off the wall, but I've always wanted to ask you this question. Of all the places you've worked around the world, what sticks out in your mind as your favorite?

CW: Oh, wow. So just up until last year, we owned a refinery just outside of Cork, Ireland in Whitegate. And if I could work at a refinery anywhere in the world that would probably be my number one choice. It was a beautiful, beautiful area; Southern Ireland hills; green; just right on the water. That was a nice place!

Comments and Discussion

Posted by Adam Guidry on April 27, 2017
Great article, from two of the industry experts. Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

Posted by Keith Davidson on May 1, 2017
Great insight Clay. enjoyed this interview... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

Posted by Bradley Baudier on May 1, 2017
Spot on! Clay hit the nail on the head about... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

Posted by Brian Wilson on May 3, 2017
Excellent Q&A Greg & Clay, really enjoyed... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

Posted by Mario Roqueta on July 18, 2017
Excellent review of past, current and future... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

Posted by Edwin Merrick on August 3, 2017
Great review by Greg and Clay. I had the... Log in or register to read the rest of this comment.

Add a Comment

Please log in or register to participate in comments and discussions.

Inspectioneering Journal

Explore over 20 years of articles written by our team of subject matter experts.

Company Directory

Find relevant products, services, and technologies.

Training Solutions

Improve your skills in key mechanical integrity subjects.

Case Studies

Learn from the experience of others in the industry.


Inspectioneering's index of mechanical integrity topics – built by you.

Industry News

Stay up-to-date with the latest inspection and asset integrity management news.


Read short articles and insights authored by industry experts.

Expert Interviews

Inspectioneering's archive of interviews with industry subject matter experts.

Event Calendar

Find upcoming conferences, training sessions, online events, and more.


Downloadable eBooks, Asset Intelligence Reports, checklists, white papers, and more.

Videos & Webinars

Watch educational and informative videos directly related to your profession.


Commonly used asset integrity management and inspection acronyms.