The 2010 Kalamazoo spill and the 2013 Exxon leak in Arkansas
are the most glaring incidents,
but these are just the big leaks that are found right away and reported.
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.
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.
The Kalamazoo and Arkansas leaks were massive and caused by
complete pipeline ruptures. These are rare incidents that account for less than
10% of leaks. But the small leaks--those that traditional pipeline detection
systems don’t catch—account for more than 90% of US pipeline leaks.
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 those that are even 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% of leaks. We need new solutions if we want to avoid another
Arkansas, or another Kalamazoo.
” are the darlings of the regulators,
who force operators who have had any 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
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 that is 1-2 inches in size. 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
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
For the larger pipes, the industry relies on SCADA. SCADA is a basic infrastructure monitoring system,
where remote hubs relay data back to central monitoring point, using
fiber-optic cable or other communications equipment. But it is not enough on
A case in point is this: A SCADA
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. It wasn’t enough. Indeed, in late 2012, PHMSA issued a 17-page
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
The 90%+ of leaks are small and more of a concern for the miles
and miles of aging pipelines that crisscross the US, 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.
remote-sensing pipeline detection technology aims to pick up
where SCADA and the pigs leave off, detecting leaks over an entire pipeline
According to Banica
, Synodon’s CEO, realSens can actually
save companies money by detecting the leaks sooner and faster and thus reducing
the amount of spilled product and the 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
“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 Oilprice.com.
But the issue of pipeline leak detection will increasingly be on
everyone’s radar following the Quebec train
killed at least 38 people, and counting. No pipeline failure has ever come
close to this level of human carnage. This will help shape the transport debate.