Innovation in industrial monitoring

A journey towards safer operations and reduced losses. By Alastair Maclachlan

With over seven million km of pipelines around the globe it has never been more important for the industry to have robust integrity management plans in place to ensure they operate safely. Despite the cost drivers of the current market, operators continue to invest in extensive maintenance programmes for their infrastructure to ensure Emergency Response Plans are in place, allowing them to respond to an event should the worst happen.

The question remains: how effective are these plans in responding to threats and complications and how is the industry moving forward to improve operations and best practice?

For onshore pipelines the primary risks to pipeline integrity include:

  • Accidental third party damage, regarded by many as the biggest threat to integrity.
  • Malicious theft / tapping of oil and refined product lines. Estimates are that theft represents a $60 billion global challenge to the industry.
  • Geotechnical threats, including landslides and river crossings. There were multiple failures into rivers in 2016 alone, spilling 17,000bbls.
  • Corrosion – an endemic threat to all installed infrastructure and pipelines.

Current pipeline integrity monitoring techniques can include ground and aerial patrols, as well as physical measurements using In Line Inspection tools. However, we know that failures and loss of containment can still occur despite best efforts.

In support of the integrity monitoring and inspection programmes in pipelines, there are leak detection systems operating in tandem. The reliability of these systems in terms of accuracy and point location can always be improved, as they have been prone to creating false alarms. For example, a ten-year study conducted by the US Department of Energy demonstrated that LDS (Leak Detection Systems) successfully detected only five per cent of pipeline spills. As such, some traditional methods are of limited analytical and security value in practical deployment and leave room for improvement.

As with all other industrial sectors, safety remains a priority. Therefore to have accurate real-time monitoring of what is happening, when and where, is becoming crucially important. Technology is now moving forward at a pace where this can be realised.

Future pipeline infrastructure monitoring can take advantage of the tech world, Digitisation and the Internet of Things (IoT). More rugged and reliable technologies are becoming available that can be cost effectively deployed on existing or new pipelines. These non-intrusive devices can be deployed as required, possibly in high risk locations (e.g. either side of a river or rail crossing) fitted with sensors for leak / flow detection. These can be supplemented by in-trench hydrocarbon monitoring to detect low-level seepage or accelerometers to detect ground vibration and possible third party intrusion. These autonomous devices can be ‘networked’ together to communicate with each other and the control room using the IoT. This enables continuous monitoring of the pipeline, which will alert the control room to any loss of containment immediately, with an accurate location. Operators can instigate their emergency procedures, thus minimising the losses and environmental damage.

The opportunity to combine this technology with satellite monitoring for enhanced response is not far away.

While prevention of an incident has priority, operators should also have Emergency Response Plans and procedures for the containment and clean up of any spillages in place. In the UK this is a well-regulated area. In other parts of the world, regulation will vary and may simply revert to best available practice. Typically operators should have:

  • Environmental Emergency Response Plans in place.
  • Access to Environmental specialists.
  • Environmental risk assessment that identifies the nature and sensitivity of the soils, groundwater and surface water features along the route of pipelines, with potential mitigation recommendations to protect high risk areas.

Risk Assessments are necessary before any intervention to the site to ensure the hazards are fully understood (e.g. presence of flammable gases, noxious fumes, limited access because of the spillage etc.) Typically, Operators will have Emergency Response Plans, which will assist the response team in minimising the spread of product, containing the spillage and regaining control of the site. These may include the use of booms in watercourses, excavation of trenches for recovery of product, corralling of product in designated areas or bunding for containment.

Once the event is under control, the operator must manage the site clean up and remediation works, as agreed with the local regulator. The options may well be limited by location, local resources and the technology available; however, there is a need to restore the site and any impacted receptors in a way that will not cause any ongoing harm to the environment. Remedial options for soil could include:

  • Bioremediation – a technique that boosts existing microbial action within the soil to breakdown hydrocarbons.
  • Soil washing – when hydrocarbon impacted sand and gravels are washed using a specialist plant, sometimes with the addition of cleaning agents.
  • Excavation and removal of the contaminated soils offsite can be a quick solution; however, this is less sustainable as material is not directly reused onsite.
  • Other options include in-situ chemical treatments where agents are injected into the ground to break down

Options for groundwater clean-up can include either pump and treat, where contaminated groundwater and product are pumped out into specialist treatment plant or taken directly offsite in tankers; or in-situ treatments as discussed above. In some cases it may be possible to demonstrate that the aquifer is self-healing through the process of natural attenuation.

History has shown the impact that any loss of containment can have and that every event impacts upon confidence in the industry. New technology has a growing place in the role of pipeline operations and maintenance and can be a powerful additional tool in the rapid detection and response to any incident that might occur. These technologies are complimentary to well proven practice but can bring enhanced visibility, safety and efficiency to operations.

Innovation has a clear place in the future in delivering safer operations. Let’s embrace it.

Alastair Maclachlan is Dashboard , Pipelines Advisor – Oil and Gas (in collaboration with IKM Consulting). Alastair has over 30 years’ experience in the design, construction and operation of pipelines for the oil and gas industry, recently retiring from BP as their global Pipelines Consultant to work with Dashboard. Based at the Exeter Science Park Centre, Dashboard offers revolutionary remote industrial process and infrastructure monitoring solutions. Serving the oil and gas, mining and utilities sectors, Dashboard provides continuous real-time monitoring of pipes and other essential components. The building of the Science Park Centre has been made possible with shareholder equity from Devon County Council, East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council, the University of Exeter; the Heart of the South West LEP which committed £4.5m loan from the Growing Places Fund; and a £1 million grant from the Regional Growth Fund.

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