How technology helps boost pipeline safety

Monitoring has acquired a level of sophistication rivalling that of air-traffic control: expert
A technician monitors data at a TransCanada pipeline control room | Submitted

Patrick Smyth says that there is a good news story to tell about the safety of Canada’s transmission pipelines, the energy highways that move oil and gas, with the use of monitoring technologies, special steels used in their manufacture and coatings that didn’t exist even 10 or 20 years ago.

“There are those who are dead-set against pipeline development, but most polls show the majority of Canadians know hydrocarbons are an important part of our economy and they know pipelines are a safe way to transport them,” said Smyth, vice-president of safety and engineering with the Calgary-based Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), which represent Trans Mountain Pipeline owner Kinder Morgan Canada and 11 other major pipeline companies in Canada.

Part of CEPA’s work is to inform Canadians about the safety and performance of the country’s extensive pipeline network.

“I’ve been involved in the pipeline sector for 20 years and it’s a story I’m happy to tell,” Smyth said.

There are 119,000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines in Canada that in an average year transport 1.2 billion barrels of oil and liquids and 5.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Those pipelines contributed $11.5 billion to Canada’s economy in 2015 while recording a 99.999 percent safety record.

Even with that record, Smyth said pipeline operators are working with new technologies to reduce the risk of product releases.

He said there have been tests by some members to apply Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests, around the exterior of pipelines at river crossings and other sensitive areas. That would render the line almost impenetrable, but it would be too costly using it along the entire length.

But, he said the coatings that are in common use today provides leak protection that goes far beyond anything that existed in the past.

“Twenty years ago companies used a tape-type product, but now there are coatings that can withstand the elements much better. They protect the pipeline from corrosion and other problems.”

Fusion-bonded epoxy coatings are in common use today.

Aside from the use of extra-strong steels that weren’t available 20 years ago, sophisticated welding techniques are also used when pipelines are being built. Ultrasonic testing of welds is in common use to check the quality of welds.

As for monitoring, the use of fibre optics, cameras and acoustic sound devices allows operators to monitor the performance of pipelines 24 hours a day, Smyth said.

“They can even use satellites and remote operating vehicles to monitor pipelines.”

Operators utilize geographical information system (GIS) technology and monitoring tools in combination.

GIS technology is also used to capture geographical data to digitally create a pipeline route, helping to refine the design to identify unstable slopes or other obstructions that would complicate the construction and safe operation of a pipeline.  

The companies all have supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) facilities, where workers know what is happening along the entire route of the pipeline.

Smyth likens pipeline SCADA facilities to air traffic control centres. Management systems the aircraft industry has put into place, including regular maintenance and ongoing flight monitoring, have allowed the industry to achieve a strong safety record.

 “Pipelines have the same kind of management and monitoring systems in place,” he said.

SCADA workers, who go through extensive training, can obtain information remotely from thousands of data points along the pipeline’s length, with the goal of catching incidents shortly after they occur.

Ultrasonic and radiographic inspection tools also assist independent pipeline inspectors to detect additional problems or verify information provided during the internal inspection.

All of these tools are also used to monitor Canada’s older pipelines, such as the existing Trans Mountain system, which was built in the 1950s.

In addition, Smyth said, major pipeline companies spend many millions of dollars a year on ongoing research to continuously improve performance. 

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