Oil pipelines monitored for safety

Source: Tulsa World (OK), September 1, 2013
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com

An array of computer monitors blinks with charts and graphs in a dark room at the south Tulsa headquarters of Explorer Pipeline. Employees are looking for even the slightest changes in pressure, outflow, anything that would indicate even the smallest discrepancy.

Above the monitors on the wall is a sign: “When in doubt, shut it down.”

“It’s always easier to be proactive and shut down than it is to regret it later on,” said Dave Ysebaert, president and CEO of Tulsa-based Explorer Pipeline. “The worst thing you can do is notice something and there was a leak and you were just pumping along and adding to it.”

Companies responsible for the transportation infrastructure of volatile crude and refined petroleum products take measures to protect their infrastructure and the public safety, Ysebaert said.

But incidents do occur.

A pipeline spill near Mayflower, Ark., earlier this year turned the yards and streets of a residential neighborhood pitch black with heavy crude oil sludge flowing through playground equipment.

On July 6, a train with 72 tanker cars full of North Dakota crude oil began to roll backward out of control, eventually crashing violently and exploding, destroying the downtown core of a small Quebec town and killing 47 people.

Just this year in Oklahoma, there have been 81 incidents involving crude oil at well sites, pipelines or other modes of transportation, according to the National Response Center database. The incidents range from a few barrels of oil and salt water spilled at a well site to up to 100 barrels of crude oil leaked from a BP pipeline in Osage County on July 26.

Pipeline remains the primary mode of transporting large amounts of product from one place to another along a fixed path, but with new oil and natural gas plays across the country and development expanding to remote areas, rail and truck transportation are filling the gap as quick fixes.

Additional safety challenges confront companies at the end of the crude pipeline, with refineries and petrochemical plants vulnerable to explosive incidents if safety initiatives are overlooked.

No matter the method, moving an inherently volatile material will present threats and opportunities by outside forces to exploit those threats.

Pipes, rail, trucks

Oil and gas transportation infrastructure has been expanding at a quick pace in the last decade as new resources in previously unreachable places have opened up thanks to new drilling technology. But some infrastructure is easier to build than others.

“We’re enjoying this huge surge in production from the various shale formations, and a lot of the shale development is in areas that did not traditionally have much in the way of oil and gas production,” said Charles Dewhurst, natural resources practice lead for BDO United States.

“So it’s going to take a while for pipeline infrastructure to catch up with that. I think rail is the perfect solution for the short-term bottleneck in terms of how do you get that production to the refineries, how do you get production of natural gas to market.”

Dewhurst has examined these methods and their benefits, as well as their potential impact on the environment. Overall he said the infrastructure in the United States is expansive and has a good safety record compared to the rest of the world.

But each of the main transportation methods — pipeline, barge, rail car and truck — each have their pros and cons.

Just looking at numbers of incidents, pipeline has been the safest. A study from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research released in June found that pipelines had the fewest incidents per billion ton-miles of other modes of transportation.

There were 0.89 incidents per billion ton-miles on natural gas pipelines between 2005 and 2009. Hazardous liquid pipelines had an 0.58 incident rate.

When looking at rail, the number of incidents jumped to 2.08 per billion ton-miles. On the road, there were 19.95 incidents.

“While I would argue that pipelines are overall from a safety perspective the way to go, I think rail and even trucks do have a very important role to play,” Dewhurst said.

While the number of incidents may be relatively low, pipeline spills tend to make the headlines more. Larger volumes of spills and the controversial nature of some pipelines like the proposed Keystone XL grab the public’s attention.

Inspect and prepare

Ysebaert said that while pipelines may be safest, the company still focuses on high standards of upkeep and maintenance. Explorer Pipeline moves refined petroleum products and diluant from the Gulf Coast northward as far as the Chicago market.

“Just because it’s the safest doesn’t mean we just sit there and rest on our laurels,” Ysebaert said. “We want to continue and improve on that. No accident is acceptable, and we continue to work on that.”

Jeremiah Konell, director of asset integrity at Explorer Pipeline, said the infrastructure is inspected at minimum every five years with an internal inspection tool. If a pipeline has a corrosion rate of 20 years, it will be replaced immediately instead of waiting for 10 years or for a problem to occur.

“We have regulations we have to repair to and we consider those the minimum standard,” Konell said.

Explorer also hires pilots to fly the pipeline regularly to look for anything that may be out of the ordinary, such as dead grass or an oil sheen. It’s a backup to the backup, Konell said.

“There was a deceased cow on the right of way one day,” Konell said. “It was just laying there, nothing else around but we shut down, making sure nothing is occurring.”

Shutting down the pipeline, making repairs on equipment cost the company money, but it’s money the company would rather spend up front than after an incident occurs.

A pipeline operated by Enbridge ruptured near Marshall, Mich., in July 2010, with up to 840,000 gallons of diluted bitumen spilling into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The heavy crude leaked for hours before the flow was stopped, making it the largest on-land pipeline failure in U.S. history.

Enbridge has estimated the clean up efforts in Michigan, which include dredging the river where the heavy crude sank to the bottom, would run in excess of $1 billion.

“Enbridge is a large company, but Explorer is not as large as Enbridge is,” Ysebaert said. “Something like that would cripple an Explorer. It just makes sense to protect from our shareholders, the public, everything we do to make sure we prevent those from happening and spending that money on the front end.”

At the end of a pipeline, refineries also must take steps to ensure safety, said Tony Conetta, vice president and refinery manager for HollyFrontier refineries in Tulsa.

The plant is visible from downtown Tulsa along the shores of the Arkansas River, but Conetta said safety for the public would be of the upmost importance, regardless of location.

“We certainly are cognizant of our location being in a metropolitan area and we strive to be a good neighbor and factor that into our decisions including emergency response preparations,” Conetta said.

The HollyFrontier refinery in Tulsa has a daily capacity of 125,000 barrels per day. That’s a lot of process for a volatile material and one the refinery plans for.

Conetta said that includes their own on-site fire department trained to handle such events, as well as working closely with Tulsa and Berryhill fire departments.

“The facility has an Emergency Response Plan and Incident Command Plan that includes preplans for various emergency scenarios, including emergencies that potentially could affect the community,” Conetta said. “Holly has a good working relationship with the Tulsa and Berryhill fire departments and provides industrial firefighting training to its own fire brigade, the Tulsa Fire Department new cadets and members of the Berryhill Fire Department.”

Preventing disasters

The No. 1 cause of pipeline ruptures for Explorer is third-party interference, Konell said. That typically happens when someone is digging somewhere they shouldn’t be.

Pipeline companies push hard on education campaigns to make sure people know where the lines are and how they can check to see if the area they are digging is safe. The national 811 hotline helps people identify if they’re in a pipeline zone.

The lines are also marked as well as they can be, the right of way is kept clear and mailers are sent to people who may be affected, Konell said.

Weather can also affect the transportation infrastructure, especially tank yards that store oil and refined petroleum. Lightning struck an Explorer tank near Glenpool in June 2006, causing it to catch fire and burn for 10 hours, according to reports.

For those phenomena, officials can just do their best to prepare, which includes watching forecasts, shutting down pipelines that could be affected.

“On the Gulf Coast, if there’s a hurricane coming in, there are a couple of tanks down there that we actually empty out and fill with water,” Konell said.

Outside human influence officials prepare for terrorism or those looking to purposefully inflict harm. Tank farms have tall fences and security to protect them, but what concerns Ysebaert more is cyber terrorism.

“If somebody were to get into that network, they could play havoc on the pumps and the integrity of that system,” Ysebaert said. “We have safety backup systems that are located in the field so if something were to happen to this, something couldn’t overpressure the pipeline because there are local controls there. It’s not just dependent on the controls here in Tulsa.”

But where all the prevention and response to incidents starts — or should start — is with the companies reaching out to communities, Dew hurst said. He pointed to the public education campaign on hydraulic fracturing as an example of how companies can approach the subject.

If companies are up front and transparent with what is traveling through the community and the plans they have to mitigate any disaster, it will help if disaster does strike, Dewhurst said.

“I do believe the industry needs to keep reinforcing the message that those pipelines and rail are safe, that the U.S. regulations are the best in the world and we should be very proud of our safety record,” Dewhurst said. “But incidents do happen and we need to do what we can to safeguard the consequences of those spills.”

Oil transportation by the numbers


The number, in millions, of barrels of oil currently stored at various Cushing facilities.


Barrels a day of refined fuel that Explorer Pipeline can pump out of Houston facilities. It would take 3,250 tractor trailers leaving Houston to match that.


The number of train car loads of petroleum or petroleum products transported in the U.S. for the week ending Aug. 17, a nearly 20 percent increase over 2012.


The capacity of the Tulsa HollyFrontier refinery in barrels per day.

Notable oil and natural gas infrastructure incidents

July 6: A train carrying 72 cars of crude oil derails and explodes in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

May 18: About 2,500 barrels of crude leaks from an Enbridge Energy Partners terminal in Cushing. The oil is mostly contained within the terminal’s structures.

March 30: The ExxonMobile Pegasus pipeline through the central Arkansas suburb of Mayflower leaks about 5,000 barrels of Canadian heavy crude and affects a marsh area near Lake Conway.

May 19, 2012: An emulsion of oil and water leaks into Rainbow Lake in northern Alberta, Canada. About 22,000 barrels leak from a waste disposal line into the lake before being discovered by another company’s flyover.

Sept. 28, 2012: A boiler explosion at the CVR Energy Inc., refinery in Wynnewood kills two workers.

July 1, 2011: About 1,500 barrels leak into the Yellowstone River near Billings, Mont., from an ExxonMobile pipeline. The pipeline leaks for nearly an hour before it was shut off.

April 20, 2010: British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes, killing 11 people and beginning an 87-day leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 210 million gallons of oil leak into the ocean.

June 12, 2006: Lightning strikes a tank containing 5 million gallons of fuel at an Explorer Pipeline tank farm near Glenpool. No injuries are reported. The fire burns for about 10 hours and consumes more than 1.5 million gallons of gasoline.

August 2005: Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast near New Orleans and causes oil spills from 44 different facilities leaking a total of 7 million gallons of oil.


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