Oil and Gas exploration continue all over the world and as more hydrocarbon sources are found the demand for pipelines to transport oil and gas increase. However, pipeline operators are under severe financial and social pressure to avoid incidents that cause crude oil and natural gas leaks. With regulators scrutinizing pipeline projects, the reputation of the entire industry is at risk. This is why pipeline integrity must become the focus of discussion.
“Pipeline integrity” refers to a comprehensive program that works to ensure hazardous resources are not released from a pipeline while minimizing the impact in the event a release does occur. Although some may think prevention methods have a one-size-fits-all solution, pipeline integrity encompasses a much broader definition and is comprised of three phases:
- Prevention activities and solutions seek to avoid gas leaks from happening in the first place through proper design, construction, operation, maintenance, training, and education.
- Detection activities and solutions help pipeline operators quickly identify that a leak has happened.
- Mitigation activities and solutions minimize the extent or impact of the leak and the damage that results.
With leak prevention being of the utmost importance, the three phase process is understandable. As with most catastrophes, the best defense is a proactive offense. The good news is that the technology and tools needed to anticipate potential threats to pipelines and identify anomalies are available today. The age-old expression, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds true for pipeline integrity: the costs that come with preventing a leak are much less than the costs of cleanup, fines, and other civil liabilities – not to mention the cost of a company’s reputation.
The process and planning that goes into the prevention of gas leaks is a multi-tiered strategy that can be split into three categories:
- Design and construction
- Operation and maintenance
- Training and education
Pipeline integrity begins with design, and construction
No two pipeline routes are the same, which is why gas leak prevention starts with specifying the technical requirements for each one. Advances in construction practices, such as more sophisticated testing prior to the pipeline’s fruition, and increasingly protective technology further safeguard pipelines vulnerability.
While it may seem like common sense to avoid areas that are susceptible to natural disasters and other geo-hazards, history has proven that one small mistake or lack of consideration of this detail plays a large hand in events that can lead to pipeline explosions. Critical to pipeline integrity, the geography of the terrain surrounding the pipeline must be evaluated, whether it be by topographical and geological maps, satellite imagery, aerial photography, and surveys available in the public domain, all are suitable methods. In addition to natural disasters like landslides and earthquakes, soft soils like swamps and bogs as well as underground cavities like coal mines and caves should also be of concern.
In addition to thorough terrain assessment, implementing equipment that is correctly sized is crucial. The pump or compressor must be sized correctly – a steady state pipeline simulation tool can validate the specified size of the pump or compressor through a computational model of the pipeline’s operating conditions. This simulation can also ensure that it is hydraulically feasible for the pipeline as designed to cross the terrain.
Lastly, but certainly not least, surge suppression equipment must also be sized correctly. A transient pipeline simulation tool can model the pipeline hydraulics to determine the design criteria for the surge suppression equipment. Surge effects like water hammer can severely damage a pipeline, thus causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair.