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Saturday, August 30, 2014

New Technology Could Reduce Oil Pipeline Leaks

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The 2010 Kalamazoo oil spill and the 2013 Exxon leak in Arkansas are reminders that the oil and gas industry occasionally suffer from large-scale pipeline ruptures. But these are just the big leaks that are found right away and reported and are rare incidents that account for less than 10 percent of all leaks. Small leaks — those that traditional pipeline detection systems don’t catch — account for more than 90 percent of U.S. pipeline leaks.

Most leaks are found eventually — but there is money to be saved and damage to be avoided by catching them at the smallest rupture. Right now, we rely on “pigs” in the pipeline to do this.


Credit: PHMSA

It’s called “pigging.” Pigs are inspection gauges that can perform various maintenance operations on a pipeline — from inspection to cleaning — without stopping the pipeline flow. The first pigs were used strictly for cleaning, and they got their name from the squealing noise they emitted while travelling through the pipeline. The current generation of “smart pigs” can detect corrosion in the pipeline and are thus relied on for leak detection.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the majority of leaks are smaller but can persist for months or even years, and even those that are reported are generally done so by people who have stumbled upon them by accident.

The fact remains that current systems and technologies only detect 50 percent of all leaks. We need new solutions if we want to avoid another Arkansas or another Kalamazoo.

The pigs are the darlings of regulators, who force operators that have had any leak problems to pig their lines at a massive cost of over $1,000 per kilometer.

Certainly, today’s smart pigs are well advanced beyond their ancestors – the balls of rags wrapped with barbwire – but they have their shortcomings.

Pigs can spot general corrosion and identify potential areas of concern, but they cannot detect pinholes in pipelines as their spatial resolution is poor and they can only see corrosion sizes that are 1 to 2 in. This is significant because a small leak of 10 barrels per day from a liquid pipeline operated at a standard pressure would come from a hole much smaller than this.

They are also only deployable over tens of kilometers, not the thousands needed.

Even if all the pipelines in the world were pigged every year, a pipeline operator would still not be able to ensure that small leaks are being detected.

For the larger pipes, the industry relies on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). SCADA is a basic infrastructure monitoring system, where remote hubs relay data back to a central monitoring point, using fiber-optic cable or other communications equipment. But it is not enough on its own.

A case in point is this: A SCADA system was working normally on the Pegasus pipeline in Arkansas at the time of the rupture and helped Exxon verify that an accident had occurred. Pegasus did not, however, have a computational pipeline monitoring (CPM) program in place on the pipe. Indeed, in late 2012, PHMSA issued a 17-page warning to Exxon about its insufficient pipeline leak detection.

Then we have Keystone XL, which is always in the spotlight, most recently when TransCanada said it would opt out of new pipeline leak detection systems and stick with traditional methods that many believe are not good enough.

The vast majority of leaks are small and more of a concern for the miles and miles of aging pipelines that crisscross the U.S., while new pipelines, like Keystone XL, will benefit from new technologies during their construction, such as better pipe metallurgy and better welding. This will mean less chance of leaks — but not a zero chance. The fact is that the leak detection systems that will be used by new pipelines like Keystone XL (assuming it gets the green light) are not really any better than the current fare.

There is new technology floating around out there — but it’s new and relatively untested in the marketplace.

RealSens remote-sensing pipeline detection technology aims to pick up where SCADA and the pigs leave off, detecting leaks over an entire pipeline network.

According to Banica, Synodon’s CEO, realSens can save companies money by detecting leaks sooner and faster and thus reduce the amount of spilled product and environmental damage. But it’s a new technology that was only introduced into the market 12 months ago.

Still, some of the big operators remain skeptical of new pipeline leak detection systems, as their cost-saving applications are as yet unproven.

“The first hurdle is that operators might not be aware that it exists and what the capabilities are. The second hurdle is that they have a hard time believing it works and have to see proof through customer field tests, which are currently ongoing,” Banica told

But the issue of pipeline leak detection will increasingly be on everyone’s radar following the Quebec train disaster that killed at least 38 people. No pipeline failure has ever come close to this level of human carnage. This will help shape the oil transport debate.

What the Quebec tragedy demonstrates, said Banica, is that pipelines are a far better option than rail. “Whereas pipelines do not kill as many people as rail (or even truck transport, as more drivers die due to accidents), they do pose a bigger environmental risk than rail due to larger potential leaks and releases,” he noted.

James Stafford is editor of

This article was originally published on and is reprinted in its entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit


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