High-Tech Monitors Often Miss Hazardous Pipeline Leaks

High-Tech Monitors Often Miss Hazardous Pipeline Leaks

Source: Dow Jones News Service, January 21, 2014
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com

Energy and pipeline companies like to point out they use high-tech sensors and remote-monitoring systems to automatically alert engineers when a pipeline starts to leak oil.

However, most leaks usually aren’t discovered that way, according to a review of four years of liquid pipeline accident records. The overwhelming majority of these pipeline spills, ruptures and leaks were discovered by somebody near the accident site, a Wall Street Journal review of a database of more than 1,400 accident reports collected by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found.

The Journal’s review focused on 251 hazardous liquids incidents in which operators had monitoring gear in place and which occurred where pipelines travel through private property.

Since 2010, leak-detection software, special alarms and round-the-clock monitoring by control rooms made initial discoveries in just 19.5% of the 251 spills reported. On-site employees and local residents combined were nearly three times as likely to be the first to spot trouble.

In September, a North Dakota farmer harvesting his wheat field first smelled crude which had seeped from a Tesoro Logistics LP pipeline. Only after Tesoro began digging did it discover that 20,000 barrels of oil had soaked an area roughly the size of six football fields. The company said it installed more monitoring and analysis equipment in the wake of that spill.

Experts have long considered pipelines to be the safest way to move petroleum, but high-profile spills in recent years have raised questions about whether the infrastructure can safely handle the increased traffic. The Journal last year reported many older pipes are welded in a way that leaves them vulnerable, and inspection technology misses many flaws.

Trains are playing a bigger role in moving oil. A string of derailments and fires in recent months have put a spotlight on troubles with rail as an alternative to pipelines.

There is no standard for how quickly pipeline leaks must be identified, and pipeline operators are required to put specific detection systems only in certain environmentally sensitive or populated areas, according to Carl Weimer, executive director of the nonprofit group Pipeline Safety Trust. “The regulations are pretty loose right now,” he said.

Under orders from Congress that date back to 2011, PHMSA is considering new regulations on leak detection systems. “We’re not standing still,” said Alan Mayberry, deputy associate administrator for field operations and emergency response. “Industry needs to ante up and increase their funding of research in areas where there are challenges.”

A spokesman for the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, an industry group, said current leak detection systems have a good track record when it comes to catching big, sudden spills. Since 2010 there have been 37 releases of more than 1,000 barrels, accounting for close to 90% of the total barrels spilled. Remote monitoring detected 23, or nearly two-thirds, of the big spills.

“Leak detection programs are working best where they are needed most–to minimize the impact of larger pipeline ruptures,” said spokesman John Stoody.

But leaks that start small don’t always stay that way, and many major spills have gone undetected by systems that can’t always distinguish between normal fluctuations and leaks.

In the North Dakota leak, Tesoro said its pipeline was being monitored for pressure drops, but it didn’t detect the slow seep of oil there. A metallurgical lab that examined the pipe said the leak probably started after an electrical charge–perhaps from a bolt of lightning–punctured the line.

Pipeline consultant Chuck O’Leary said no one-size-fits-all solution works for every pipeline. Many leak detection systems use software that measures how much liquid or gas went into a line, how much came out, and pressure inside a pipe. Companies also conduct regular inspections, often using helicopters and small planes to check for spills.

Even when leak detection systems work as they should, spills can be serious. Exxon Mobil Corp. said its operators in Houston began shutting down a crude oil pipeline within 90 seconds of spotting a pressure drop last March and finished the process within 16 minutes. But the force of the sudden rupture still sent 5,000 barrels of oil rushing through the streets of a neighborhood in Mayflower, Ark.

There is still room for human error. In 2010, an oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Inc. spilled 20,080 barrels of crude near Marshall, Mich., which flowed into a nearby river. A control center in Edmonton, Alberta, had received several readings that could signal a leak, but workers misinterpreted the alarms and pumped in more oil.

By the time a utility worker alerted Enbridge, 17 hours had passed since the initial rupture. Cleaning up that oil spill has cost the Calgary company close to $1 billion so far.

Critics say there are better new technologies, including acoustic sensors that search for unique frequencies created by leaks, infrared imaging and fiber-optic cables that can detect slight temperature changes that could signal leaks.

But a study commissioned by PHMSA found most pipeline operators didn’t want to upgrade, fearing higher costs and false alarms. They already get dozens of alarms each hour with traditional methods, which makes it harder to detect serious problems said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., a consulting firm.

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