October 2017, Vol. 244, No. 10


How Monitoring Detects Pipeline Issues

By Nicholas Newman, Europe Contributing Editor

The world’s pipelines are vital energy corridors which link oil and gas fields to customers. At one large end of the spectrum, the 760-mile (1,222-km) Nordstream1 natural gas pipeline is the longest subsea pipeline in the world with an annual capacity of 55 Bcm.

There is also the West-East Gas Pipeline Project, which at 2,485 miles (4,000 km), is among the longest onshore pipelines and links the gas fields of Turkmenistan in Central Asia with such Chinese coastal cities as Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Moreover, pipeline networks can be extensive. For example, the United States contains 135,000 miles (217,261 km) of oil and gas pipelines, and Canada has about 68,350 miles (110,000 km) of pipelines.

Pipeline Problems

Pipeline operators face a wide range of ever-changing problems including sabotage, remoteness of location and age. This means pipeline networks require constant specialist care. In dangerous locations, pipelines are prime targets for terrorist attacks, while those in remote areas are difficult to monitor for leaks and breaks. Most of the time, though, age is the biggest problem.

As of 2015, 67% of oil and gas pipelines across the globe were over 20 years old, while 18% were 11-20 years old, according to a Research and Markets report in May.

In the United States, about 55% of the 135,000 miles of oil and gasoline pipelines were installed in or before 1969, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA). Since much of the infrastructure was built before current safety regulations were put in place, many distribution pipelines are still comprised of cast iron, some are as much as a century old.

Criminal Concerns

Havocscope, which reports on the global black market, said in July that overall losses of $37.23 billion a year are due to pipeline leaks and outright theft. In some countries, terrorism and organized crime are major threats to pipeline integrity. There are frequent reports of criminal gangs stealing oil and gas in Colombia, Mexico and Nigeria.

In March, one Mexican gang “earned” $90,000 in just seven minutes by stealing from a Pemex pipeline carrying refined oil, according to the Guardian newspaper. Across the Atlantic in Nigeria terrorists have repeatedly attacked pipelines in the Niger Delta. This has resulted in millions of dollars in lost revenues for that nation’s cash-strapped government, according to Reuters.

Everyday Breaches

Then there are frequent and unintentional pipeline breaches stemming from corrosion, material and welding failures, incorrect operation and excavation damage. There are also external causes such as damage caused by nearby construction, manufacturing issues or natural forces like landslides and floods.

In the case of Canada, in 2015 only about 16 barrels of crude oil spilled from pipelines. Meanwhile, 121.3 MMcf of natural gas, the equivalent of 859,000 propane barbecue tanks, was lost through leakages.

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Market for Detection

It is not surprising that Research and Markets reported the global leak detection and anti-theft market is expected to exceed $3.5 billion a year by 2022, In South America alone this market is expected to be worth $90 million by 2022.

One way to check pipelines is with thermal cameras which serve as a useful tool for maintenance and security functions. There are several thermal cameras marketed for the pipeline sector, including models produced by Germany’s Sewerin and America’s Electro Optical Industries.

The Electro Optical Industries’ Spynel camera, features a 360-degree thermal-imaging system and operates like high-definition “optical radar,” providing operators with clear, reliable and actionable data.

Thermal imaging is also used in a maintenance role for detection of potential pipeline leaks. Such cameras are placed in airborne or subsea drones to improve access to pipelines and associated infrastructure in remote locations and environments.

A traditional camera can only operate in the visible spectrum (400-700 nanometers), but a thermal camera can form images in infrared, using longer wavelengths (14,000 nanometers). Since methane is sensitive to infrared light, it can be detected by thermal cameras. For example, a thermal camera detected the methane plume from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage reservoir near Porter Ranch, CA in 2016.

In addition, thermal-imaging cameras enhance the safety of workers looking for leaks. With these cameras workers can scan for and pinpoint the smallest emissions without having to enter a hazardous area.

Monitoring Sensors

Increasingly, pipeline operators are installing sensors connected by fiber-optic cables, wireless or satellite networks along the entire length of the infrastructure.

In an ORBCOMM case study, one unspecified South American pipeline operator opted for a remote pipeline monitoring solution provided by this technology and satellite communications company. Along the pipeline, high-sensitivity pressure sensors were placed at the in-feed and out-feed of pipelines to detect changes in pressure in order to determine leaks.

Since the system relied on high-sensitivity sensors rather than flow metering, the  smallest variations in pressure can be detected, making it easier to pinpoint smaller leaks. An advantage of using the technology is that only processed data and results are transmitted.

Additionally, from remote monitoring stations sited along the pipeline system, encrypted data is sent at five-minute intervals via satellite to the pipeline’s control room. This makes it easy to determine if an illegal tap is in place. A typical illegal tap can take less than 15 minutes to fill a tanker. In the event of a leak, the system notifies the operator via email, SMS or web.

The case study showed the installation of ORBCOMM technology led to the detection of over 300 events (included 15 illegal taps) in just 25 miles (40 km) of pipeline in just over three months. The technology can pinpoint the location of the leak within 985 feet (300 meters) of the actual leak, which makes repair activities much easier. All the data can be integrated into the existing SCADA system.

While it’s difficult to be sure that such innovative pipeline monitoring solutions could have prevented the incidents illustrated in this article,  smart and cost-effective options exist and it is up to energy companies and pipeline owners to protect their infrastructure.

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