September 2019, Vol. 246, No. 9


iPIPE Program Assisting in Detection of Pipeline Leaks

Jay Almlie, a principal engineer at the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC), talks with P&GJ about his involvement with the intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program (iPIPE), an industry-led consortium focused on advancing near-commercial, emerging technologies to prevent and detect gathering pipeline leaks. 

Almlie, who has worked on projects involving pipeline leak detection and performance, discusses, among other topics, the growth of iPIPE, funding for testing of new technologies and the organization’s benefits to its members.


P&GJ: Jay, tell us about the purpose of the Intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program (iPIPE) and how it got started?

Almlie: In May 2017, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum asked every pipeline operator with assets in North Dakota to participate in a daylong conversation with him on the topic of pipeline spills, reversing the trends of pipeline spills in our state, and reversing the negative messages on pipelines expressed widely in media.

This meeting was held on the heels of several high-visibility spills in North Dakota and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests that received extensive national media coverage. The governor’s message to industry was that we are moving toward an era of zero tolerance for pipeline leaks. He added that he strongly believed that industry could apply technology to overcome many of the challenges of improved pipeline safety.

Shortly after the governor’s meeting, a few industry leaders stepped forth with an idea for a program to foster creation of new technology – technology that simply doesn’t currently exist, especially for narrow-diameter gathering pipelines.

This group of industry leaders proposed such a program to the North Dakota Industrial Commission and asked for cost match funding to assemble a pot of resources to fund promising projects.

The program is continuously scouting technologies and the best of these offer development project proposals to iPIPE, requesting funding and pipeline assets upon which the products can be developed and demonstrated.

The iPIPE Technology Selection Panel hears presentations from only the most promising of all proposals submitted. Some have likened this to the popular ABC Television program, “Shark Tank.” In fact, the process is modeled closely after this method.

iPIPE then hosts development and demonstration activities and provides valuable feedback to advance the product offering closer to a commercially ready state.


P&GJ: How many companies are involved in the consortium, and how do they benefit by being members?

Almlie: In May 2018, the program started with six industry members and the North Dakota Industrial Commission (the chief promoter and regulator of oil and gas activity in the state).

As word of the success spread, the consortium grew and now includes Andeavor, DCP Midstream, Enbridge, Equinor, Goodnight Midstream, Hess Corp., Oasis Midstream, ONEOK and Whiting Petroleum. The program is engaged in discussions with nine additional potential members from across the United States and Canada.

Members benefit from program activities in the following ways:

  • Members direct the selection of specific technologies that most closely support their organization’s goals regarding pipeline operations.
  • Experience is gained in working with promising new technologies at greatly reduced cost because the costs are shared with other members and even with technology providers. The program insists on substantial cost share provided by technology providers. iPIPE members wish to know that technology providers recognize that iPIPE is helping them develop immature technologies, and thus, providers should have “skin in the game.”
  • Members share common challenges and solutions openly within this forum, elevating everyone’s performance in safe delivery of oil and gas fluids to market (or disposal, in the case of produced water handling). Members have surprised themselves at the level of sharing that occurs. A mantra frequently employed within membership meetings is “a high tide floats all boats,” meaning that if this consortium elevates safe pipeline operations by applying technology, the whole industry benefits.
  • Joint use the program to demonstrate that industry is leaving no stone unturned in its search for technologies that enable continuous improvement of pipeline operations and pipeline safety – even to the point of developing new technologies where none currently exist. It is, indeed, rare for technology providers to find future customers willing to invest at early stages with little financial return on investment. By that, we mean that iPIPE members simply want to put new tools into their toolbelts and are asking for no financial stake in the companies offering these technologies for development.
  • By their active participation, members demonstrate their responsible citizenship to landowners and regulators alike.


The iPIPE consortium focuses on advancing emerging technologies to prevent and detect gathering pipeline leaks. (Photo courtesy of iPIPE )

P&GJ: How is the research funded and how does the information get shared?

Almlie: Each member contributes $75,000 in annual membership dues and commits to a multiyear program to ensure momentum. North Dakota agreed to provide cost match funding to the program, which greatly multiplies the resources available to the program.

Currently, the program budget includes approximately $3 million in cash resources and anticipates well over $2 million of in-kind contributions from members and technology providers. With growing membership, the program value is eventually anticipated to be well in excess of $12 million.

Because members are paying for the program, members have access to detailed information and results generated by the program. This information is restricted to members only, at least initially.

There is sentiment within the program to share these results with industry at large to achieve the “high tide floats all boats-inch goal,” but initially, the information is kept within the program to ensure motivation for new members to join and to maximize resources available to really make an impact with the program.

Each year, the program provides a summary report to the North Dakota Industrial Commission in exchange for their continued financial support. This report is a public summary of high-level results and program lessons but does not share the level of detail reserved for paying consortium members.


P&GJ: Are there any new technologies that are being tested?

Almlie: During the initial technology selection round in May 2018, two technologies were selected for development work:

Satelytics is a data and analytical platform that promises to automate broad monitoring of large systems of liquids gathering pipelines. It employs machine learning algorithms to automatically analyze large amounts of optical, multispectral, and hyperspectral data from satellites, commercial airliner overflights, drone overflights, and fixed sensors to produce alerts on various changes of interest to the pipeline operator.

Satelytics employs a web-based interface as a data-rich information delivery system. Via this interface, current and historical alert locations and details can be displayed, before-and-after comparisons over a time span within the project can be observed, data can be downloaded to support field actions, and feedback can be provided to continuously improve the performance of the algorithms employed.

The interface provides a variety of analytical tools to the pipeline operator, including temperature analyses, chemical analyses, leak detections, and change detections. Change detections are further categorized as vegetation changes or encroachment changes. Encroachment changes are further categorized as surface disturbance, vehicle, structure, water, road, facility, shed or other.

The other technology is Pipers, an emerging solution developed by Ingu Solutions, which claims that it is an affordable and easy-to-deploy screening tool that identifies risks and performance issues in pipelines, especially suitable for small-diameter (less than 8-inch) pipelines.

According to Ingu Solutions, the technology detects and locates leaks, defects, magnetic features, and restrictions in all pipelines, with no interruption of service. Pipers sensors can be deployed in two ways: free-floating (FF-Pipers) or in combination with a cleaning pig (CP-Pipers).

Pipers sensors employ acoustic leak detection and shows an excellent signal-to-background noise ratio, allowing for accurate detection of leaks. The reduction in background noise is achieved by the free-floating nature of the Pipers sensors, which are weighted to be neutrally buoyant in the pipeline liquid and therefore experience greatly reduced background noise attributable to scraping or rolling along the pipeline.

Using the metal magnetic memory method, Pipers sensors attempt to identify pipeline sections exhibiting significant metal loss. With baseline measurements, Pipers report the axial and radial magnetic profile along the pipeline. Subsequent measurements indicate differences in the profile measured along the pipeline as well as changes in the profile over time.

The technology employs a tiny sensor and power package, mounted on a small circuit board inside a hermetically sealed sphere. As of the date of this report, Ingu Solutions has two variants: one measuring 1.5-inch and one measuring 2.2-inch in diameter.

After a second technology selection round in October 2018, iPIPE selected three additional technologies and one additional phase of work for a previously selected technology:

  • Satelytics, Phase II focused on improving the brine leak algorithms developed under the previous phase of work and development of a mobile platform to improve usability in the field, especially in remote areas where cellular communications are challenged.
  • Direct-C proposed a project to develop film-embedded nanocomposite sensors to instantly directly measure hydrocarbon and saline leaks.
  • Insitu submitted a project using drones flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), multiple sensors and advanced analytics to identify pipeline leaks over large areas of operation.
  • Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) offered a project to further develop its Smart Leak Detection (SLED) technology using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) cameras and machine learning algorithms to instantly identify and categorize hydrocarbon leaks.


P&GJ: Discuss some of the research that has been conducted and proved to be an asset to the industry.

Almlie: Members consider both of the program’s 2018 projects to be highly successful projects.

Satelytics identified a number of potential hydrocarbon leaks during 2018 over a 1000-km² area in North Dakota, including several simulated leaks carefully executed by iPIPE members. This area contained pipeline assets of each of the six original members of the program. As a result of feedback from program members, the machine learning algorithms demonstrably improved their accuracy in spotting true hydrocarbon leaks over the course of four months.

Ingu Solutions demonstrated the capabilities of Pipers on 14 different pipeline segments across North Dakota. Pipers capabilities were proven, but more importantly, improvement related to logistics were made as a result of the experience provided by iPIPE on myriad pipeline hardware configurations.

Results of these two projects have now led multiple companies within iPIPE to consider commercial contracts with these two companies. Thus, the objective of putting new tools into the toolbelts of the pipeline industry has been accomplished.


P&GJ: This began in North Dakota, but has it expanded beyond to other operators in other states?

Almlie: This program began in North Dakota because the state presents special challenges to pipeline operators – harsh winter climate, rapidly expanding oil play with little prior infrastructure, and expansive acreage to service with pipelines.

North Dakota also presented opportunities, not the least of which is a very proactive state government that funds cutting-edge research to maximize economic benefits from the oil field while also minimizing environmental impact. The North Dakota Industrial Commission’s charter to fund research through the Oil & Gas Research Program is unique in the nation and greatly assists the program.

But, with the early success of iPIPE, its seventh joining member was a company with no North Dakota assets: DCP Midstream, based in Denver, Colo. Since then, Enbridge has joined the consortium via its Canadian office, and many other operators from across the United States and Canada are currently actively discussing membership in the program.

The program is engaged in operations in the Williston Basin in North Dakota, the D-J Basin in Colorado, the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas, and the Alberta Basin in Canada.

Program members all have assets beyond North Dakota and, therefore, desire to continue its expansion nationally and into Canada to maximize benefits of lessons to all of the pipeline industry. P&GJ

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