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Pipeline Integrity Revisited

Pipeline integrity as established in the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act may need a refresh. The gas pipeline explosion at San Bruno was a wake-up call for gas pipeline safety. At Pipeline Safety Forum on April 18th in Washington, DC, most attendees agreed that it was time to take another look at this close to 10-year-old legislation. In addition, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood, has called for a comprehensive review of oil and gas pipeline systems to identify high-risk areas and accelerate repair and replacement work, as well as additional federal legislation and oversight. IT will certainly play a major role in accommodating new requirements.

One of the issues associated with San Brunois proper record keeping. Apparently in the San Bruno accident, asset records of the pipeline area showed that the pipe that was involved in the explosion was seamless.It was not. Inspection of the pipe was made with that in mind, although PG&E claims that the inspection would have been the same if the pipeline material was correctly identified. Sempra, another California utility, is turning down the pressure on some of their pipelines to mitigate the risk of explosion while the company tries to locate asset records for these pipelines.

This week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation favorably reported out S 275, the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011. According to an article by Bryan Shutt in SNL Energy on May 5, the bill calls for increasing penalties for pipeline violations from $100,000 per day to $250,000 per day and from $1 million to $2.5 million for a series of violations. American Gas Association (AGA) and the Interstate Natural Gas Association support the bill.

Safety for natural gas pipelines is not the only pipeline safety being watched these days. On May 5, BP is to pay a $25 million civil penalty plus interest to settle a federal investigation into a 2006 pipeline oil spill on Alaska's North Slope, according to the Alaska Dispatch. On May 3, BP Exploration Alaska, Inc. made an agreement to pay $25 million as a penalty to Alaska. This penalty came to BP as a result of spilling more than 5,000 barrels of crude oil from its pipelines on Alaska's North Slope in 2006. According to a BP spokesman, BP has already spent more than $500 million since 2006 to improve pipeline integrity on the North Slope, including replacing the oil transit line system and building a GIS mapping database.

IT is certainly a major piece of maintaining pipeline safety. Enterprise asset management (EAM) applications were built to be repository of asset and work history data. These applications are now able to tie to enterprise content management (ECM) systems to associate a particular asset with unstructured data such as a drawing or PDF file with pipeline specifications. Those records are only as good as the protocols and incentives for keeping asset data up to date. Of course, many pipelines were installed when paper records were the norm. We expect to see an extra effort to digitize these records in order to support pipeline safety and once digitized, have these records stored in an ECM that is easy to access. In anticipation of new regulations, pipeline owners may want to examine the health of their records.

Even more important is to examine the health of the pipeline assets and plan a replacement strategy that makes sense. The industry has come a long way in identifying conditions such as corrosion through the use of robotic "pigs" that can travel the pipelines to identify areas of weakness due to corrosion. This strategy does involve, in many cases, deployment of inspectors, often to remote and hard to reach areas. Arming inspectors with mobile devices that can provide access to pipeline specifications, geospatial coordinates from the GIS and drawings in the field can be helpful. Even more helpful is to develop mobile workforce applications that will allow inspectors to enter data into asset management systems, especially in the cases where swift action is needed.

Pipelines are by their nature distributed and remote. Having sensors and analytics available to help identify pipes at risk would be a sensible strategy. Oil and gas companies are, in fact, investing in smart technologies for safety monitoring. As part of the 2011 Vertical IT & Communications Survey conducted by IDC in January, 2011, which included 90 North American oil and gas companies, 42% stated that they would be investing in smart technologies for safety monitoring in the next one to two years. This is not surprising given the importance of safety in the upstream side of the business. But in midstream, there are a number of questions still to be answered. The major risks to pipelines are corrosion, digging and failure of materials. Is sensing technology available that can identify these potential risks to pipeline integrity? Sensors in remote locations should not have significant power requirements and should be able to be powered by long-life batteries. Are these sensors now available? Then too, is the telecommunications infrastructure available to support bringing the data back for analysis? We welcome your comments.

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