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Predictive models stop spills before they happen

Protecting pipeline integrity through advance modeling of potential problems is growing in Canada and abroad

The use of specialized software is expanding, with more and more kilometres of pipe being looked at before problems arise.
The use of specialized software is expanding, with more and more kilometres of pipe being looked at before problems arise.

According to the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association’s 2015 Pipeline Industry Performance Report, there are more than 110,000 kilometres of transmission pipeline in Canada that move more than 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of gas each year. On those pipelines last year, there were 122 spills or releases reported, four of which were classed as significant by industry standards – and that’s just main transmission lines. There are many more kilometres of smaller pipes criss-crossing oil and gas fields across the country.

When it comes to the public, though, all spills or releases are significant, and become the focus of many reports and concerns surrounding the use of pipelines to move oil and gas products. To combat those worries, the industry is using many different approaches to prevent leaks, from expanded inspections to new protective coatings, and so on.

One approach growing in use is that of predicting breaches before they happen and minimizing the risk of incidents ahead of time. The use of specialized software is expanding, with more and more kilometres of pipe being looked at before problems arise.

The more that spills are reduced, the more likely that public opinion turns towards allowing new pipelines to be built, according to one expert in the field of pipeline integrity.

“We build a risk profile based on a large number of factors and, through our system, tell the operator which areas are high risk and what factors are telling us that.” Rui Wang

“The safety of pipeline transmission is much higher than any other means of transportation of crude oil and gas. The reason the public has a negative perception is because of big spills… in a lake or a river crossing,” said Rui Wang, vice president of Cenozon. “I hear from a lot of producers that they can produce more, but there’s no capacity in the pipelines to ship the product to the market. With the lack of pipeline capacity right now, any small spill that happens in Alberta is going to affect public perception.”

There have been many approaches developed to help monitor pipeline integrity over time, from electronic systems to visual. “Different tools are used for different pipelines; for big pipelines… they use a lot of monitoring for leak detection. They may fly drones along the line, and they have sensors installed at critical points to detect leaks or pressure problems, and monitor those in large control rooms,” Wang said.

Inspection and monitoring, however, are just one method of preventing leaks. Knowing where the leaks are likely to occur and engaging in preventative maintenance is another.

“The technology we use is really a risk assessment of the pipeline – from as short as 25 metres to much larger. We build a risk profile based on a large number of factors and, through our system, tell the operator which areas are high risk and what factors are telling us that,” Wang said. “From that, they can make a decision on which pipelines or segments they need to monitor more closely or repair.”

Today’s pipeline operations produce vast amounts of data from sensors and monitors along the length of the pipe, and that data can be channeled into Cenozon’s Pipeline Integrity Risk Manager (PIRM) software to be processed and generate risk assessments.

“Our software integrates with a variety of data, including public domain data as well – such as information related to roads, to rivers, to elevation,” Wang said. “We also integrate the system with data coming in from the producers and operators on a real-time basis from SCADA systems or field data capturing systems.”

In addition, the software can take into consideration data being generated by third-party vendors through inspections.

“Right now we’re trying to build communication channels so the vendors, inspection companies, the chemical companies can send data to our platform and everyone can then share that information through the system,” Wang explained.

The quickly changing nature of oil operations can be a challenge for operators and place strain on their pipeline networks; the use of real-time information captured and processed by software such as PIRM can be a benefit to safety in fast-moving fields.

“They are able to act quickly, because the fields change quickly in terms of new wells being added, others being shut down, changes to pipelines,” he said. “All of those changes affect the risk to a pipeline network. With this kind of data integration in real time, we shorten the cycle to minutes and hours, compared to traditional methods that may take a month to get risk information. In those cases, often the field conditions have already changed.”

Corrosion rates are one of the big red flags the PIRM system watches for, Wang noted.

“From our software, we do corrosion predictions, or flow modelling, and we can then predict where you have extreme corrosion rates in your network,” he said. “They can then take action such as further inspections or changing their chemical treatment programs to prevent further corrosion. Additionally, we can identify pipeline river crossings and determine what the corrosion situations are in those pipelines.”

Regulation compliance is a third data point the software takes into account in evaluating risk. New wells coming onstream can change conditions in the line, requiring updates or other maintenance to remain in compliance; the PIRM system helps identify those issues as well.

Incorporating software such as Cenozon’s is a simple process; in the case of PIRM the software can be accessed over the Internet to reduce hardware and infrastructure expenditures. Numerous companies are already making use of the system, and report good results over time.

Cenozon states that some customers report incident rates 47 percent lower than industry averages, resulting in savings of up to $3 million a year for every 10,000 kilometres of upstream pipeline. Some examples of the system in operation include adjusting corrosion mitigation depending on operating condition changes. One company in Alberta was using excessive amounts of chemicals; when that was identified they wound up saving 80 percent in their chemical program over three years.

“That’s $250,000 in just one field of more than 100 fields,” Wang noted. “Companies want to produce more with less. Right now for oil and gas companies it’s all about efficiency.”

Another operation wanted to get better information about their networks, so applied the software to understand the connectivity of their acquired infrastructure, manage corrosion in aging assets, and identify risks in non-productive assets. OGPN

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