May 2019, Vol. 246, No. 5


Letter from PRCI President Cliff Johnson: Investing in Research to Improve Pipeline Safety

Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI) exists as a way for its members, who are pipeline operators, service providers and other industry stakeholders, to collectively and collaboratively, conduct research, develop, and evaluate new and emerging technologies that have the potential to improve the operational safety of their pipeline systems – infrastructure that has already proven to be the safest mode of transportation for energy products.

However, the public perception of pipeline companies, and the assets they operate, do not match reality. The general public would likely find it difficult to believe that 99.997% of the energy products transported via pipeline are safely delivered to their final destination without incident. Nevertheless, the members of PRCI are continuously working to enhance and improve these vital assets.

A very timely example of how public perception is being shaped is, as I wrote this article, President Trump signed two executive orders that have the potential to make it easier for new pipelines to be built in the United States. A quick Google search shows that the headlines regarding this news range drastically from, “Trump Signs Orders to Speed Up Oil and Gas Projects,” to “Trump Signs Orders Making It Harder to Block Pipelines.” Or my favorite, “Trump Brushes Aside Environmental Concerns by Signing New Executive Orders.” 

These wildly different headlines are a testament to how savvy and influential the opposition is in shaping mainstream media and, as a result, the public’s perception of our industry. This is why it has become especially important to share publicly the time, energy and investment PRCI members put into research to continue to strive toward zero incidents. 

Our mission at PRCI is clear: to collaboratively deliver relevant and innovative applied research to continually improve the global energy pipeline systems. As a way to live our mission statement each day, our members developed research objectives (RO) to provide guidance for selecting research projects. The ROs ensure the research PRCI conducts is addressing key challenges and issues facing our industry. 

To ensure this, we also engage with government agencies such as the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) in the United States, and the National Energy Board (NEB) in Canada. In recent years, PRCI has become heavily involved in PHMSA’s Voluntary Information Sharing Working Group, which developed recommendations for the secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT) to ease and encourage a collaborative approach to sharing inspection information and feedback for the purpose of improving gas transmission and hazardous liquid pipeline integrity risk analysis. 

PHMSA Research 

PRCI also participates in PHMSA’s biennial Research & Development Forum, which allowed PHMSA to fully understand our research execution capabilities. This recently resulted in our being awarded research contracts. The first project looks to evaluate the well-casing integrity management of underground storage wells. This project is meant to reduce uncertainty in the evaluation of storage well-casing integrity through more accurate assessments. 

The second is a project to modernize the assessment of pipeline water crossings, which would help operators to better identify and evaluate pipeline asset integrity threats at water crossings, thus limiting environmental impacts. 

Environmental Impact

Speaking of the environment, our members are extremely supportive. PRCI members fund research aimed at reducing hydrocarbon emissions from every aspect of the energy transportation and storage infrastructure. PRCI’s Executive Assembly also approved an initiative to focus on emerging and alternative fuels that have the potential to be transported via pipeline, such as ethanol or hydrogen.  

The Compressor and Pump Station Technical Committee, in conjunction with the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), conducted research to evaluate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regulatory Model (AERMOD) for its applicability in estimating ambient nitrous dioxide concentrations used for permitting gas industry sources. 

The research identified multiple factors that were contributing to the model’s significant overprediction of NO2 from pipeline engines. This research will be very impactful in improving the AERMOD model, as well as enhancing environmental regulations. 

In-Line Inspection 

As an industry, we spend a lot of time talking about integrity: integrity management programs, integrity assessment methods, integrity threats. Well, there is a reason for that. The integrity of pipeline operator’s assets is paramount to ensuring that what is in the line, stays in the line; therefore, PRCI also commits a lot of research funding and resources to examining the effectiveness and accuracy of methods that are used to evaluate a pipeline’s integrity. 

One research project due for release this year evaluated the performance capabilities of in-line inspection (ILI) technologies used to identify anomalies in the longitudinal seam welds of electric resistance welded (ERW) pipe. A need to confirm and validate these technologies was identified by our members as a critical path to improving pipeline integrity management. The research will also provide a basis for the development of new technologies that may be needed in order to improve the identification and sizing of injurious flaws in the pipe long seam.  

Another recently released research project, ILI Crack Tool Reliability and Performance Evaluation, compiled several years of results from ultrasonic (UT) and electro-magnetic acoustic transducer (EMAT) ILI runs for the purpose of evaluating the technologies’ effectiveness in detecting cracks and crack-like features. The report explains how these results can be used by PRCI members to improve crack integrity programs’ effectiveness, efficiency, and compliance with regulations and recommended practices.

PRCI continues to be more ambitious with its research goals, as is the case with the Performance Evaluation of ILI Systems for Detecting and Discriminating Metal Loss, Cracks and Gouges in Geometric Anomalies project. 

Led by PRCI’s Research Steering Committee Chair Mark Piazza, this project takes on the impressive task of evaluating ILI system performance on a scale never seen before in our industry. At the center of the project is PRCI’s Technology Development Center (TDC). The project is leveraging an already existing mechanical damage pull-test string at the TDC and has tested a range of ILI technologies, both well-established and emerging. 

The predicted outcome of the project is an improved understanding of ILI system capabilities to detect and discriminate between injurious and non-injurious mechanical damage features, which is a critical driver for an operator to decide if it is necessary to use additional assessment methods and in making repair decisions.  

Pipeline Data Hub

All this research, along with many more projects, results in an enormous amount of valuable data: Data that, if used properly, could lead to a true step-change for our industry. PRCI is developing a Pipeline Data Hub that will use machine learning, along with artificial intelligence, to develop predictive decision-making that will leverage the vast amount of data within our research programs. The idea is that the Pipeline Data Hub will become an essential tool for selecting assessment methods, tool technologies, and enhancing processes, procedures and personnel. 

The way I see it, the Pipeline Data Hub is an important step for our industry to take, as it will foster and expand upon the industry’s culture of information sharing. By constructing a system architecture that will allow for both members and non-members to contribute and share data, we will have significantly contributed to the advancement of pipeline safety and be one step closer to delivering 100% of the world’s energy to its final destination without incident. 

In closing, I am pleased to be able to share the work we are conducting and recognize the commitment that our members have to advancing toward the industry goal of zero incidents and improving pipeline safety and performance worldwide. We look forward to building upon our success and having an even greater impact in the future as we further focus our attention and transition to a new research funding model that addresses strategic research priorities for PRCI and the industry. P&GJ

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