Expanding Pipeline System Faces Critical Safety Concerns

By Staff
9 Min Read

Ever since the passing of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the pipeline industry has added thousands of miles of natural gas, crude oil and carbon dioxide pipelines to the national network. And while the law provided $1 billion in grants for new natural gas distribution lines, it did not add money to the PHMSA’s pipeline safety program. This would seem contrary to the industry’s needs, given the escalation of spills, environmental concerns and criminal activities surrounding these projects.

To get further insight on the issues and challenges surrounding pipeline expansion and safety, I recently sat down with Chris Jones, LNG & Midstream Vertical Leader at Honeywell Process Solutions. He initially worked as an engineer and operator in chemical plants. In his current role Chris and his team partner with customers to drive growth in the LNG and Midstream market and improve customers’ overall operations performance through autonomous solutions. 

Jeff Reinke, editorial director: We hear a lot about spills, leaks and similar pipeline safety issues. Are there others that might not get the same hype, but carry similar concerns?

Chris Jones, Honeywell: Spills and leaks are reportable incidents and only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There are many situations that lie below the surface that need managing, and there are also new, emerging concerns that are coming with the energy transition.

One of the big topics of pipeline safety today is related to the transition to a hydrogen economy with the energy transition. The impacts of hydrogen on the metallurgy of existing pipelines are not fully understood yet and still carry some risk. Where hydrogen is being used today, it is being blended in small concentrations to existing streams to protect the metallurgy of the pipelines. Hydrogen is also much smaller than many hydrocarbons like methane (the key component in natural gas) and can leak in places that were previously sealed. This, coupled with the potential explosibility of hydrogen, presents a need for higher integrity of pipelines as we use hydrogen in them.

In addition to accidental spills/leaks, one of the problems faced in some geographies is the tampering with and theft from pipelines. As hard as it may be to imagine, these pipelines are “tapped” typically in rural areas, and product is taken from them. In addition to the losses incurred by the operating companies, this tampering is very dangerous and also presents safety hazards to the pipelines.

JR: What has been the fallout from the lack of increased funding for PHMSA ?

CJ: While PHMSA has lacked sufficient increases in funding, the North American pipeline industry is largely self-regulated,  with mechanisms for entities to report any issues to PHMSA as the operator. Insufficient resourcing of PHMSA could result in less new regulations, which could slow down development of needed energy infrastructure. Obviously, there would also be less inspection and auditing of the pipeline operators. A bill was passed in December to maintain funding of PHMSA; however it has been reported as being unable to increase staffing to meet auditing requirements.

JR: Is this sector keeping pace with other areas of manufacturing when it comes to automation and Industry 4.0 investments?

CJ: There can be a dis-incentive to invest sometimes in the pipeline industry, as most larger pipelines are regulated heavily, including the tariffs that they can charge. So yes, there can be a gap when compared to other industries like downstream, and we would expect the pipelines industry to apply technology when it has been matured by other industries. For example, the SCADA systems and communications protocols prevalent in pipelines were originally developed for the electrical transmission industry.

With Industry 4.0 investments, most operating companies have incorporated digital devices and algorithms that provide huge streams of data. What is still needed are more tools to turn data into information. If data is not consolidated and presented with context to turn it into actionable information, then it may serve as a distraction to the real Key Performance Indicators used to run the operation safely and efficiently.

JR: Environmental concerns seem to always come to the forefront when discussing pipelines. How has this convergence of expansion, automation and environmental concerns impacted pipeline operations?

CJ: It seems that there is much public concern which is voiced into protest to pipelines developments in recent years, and some of the major pipeline infrastructure needed has been stopped because of this concern. In reality, pipelines can be much safer and environmentally friendlier than the next best alternatives.

For example, if liquids cannot be moved via pipeline, the alternative methods of transportation are using railcars or tank trucks. The statistical accidents of these may be much higher than the failure rate of a pipeline. Technology to determine and even predict the integrity of pipelines has matured in recent years. For example, corrosion is a major cause of leaks and most high-pressure pipelines in North America are many decades old. Technology to monitor and predict the onset of a leak caused by corrosion is readily available now, which can direct remedies before a leak occurs.

Also, pipelines can be outfitted with very precise leak detection and intrusion detection technologies that alert operators quickly and accurately at the onset of an integrity challenge.

JR: Security would seem like a huge challenge with a growing number of pipelines. What are the biggest challenges regarding pipeline security?

CJ: Pipelines run long distances and through publicly accessible areas. Often, the pipeline may not be protected by fencing and traditional methods used for other industrial operations. Additionally, pipelines may run through rural areas like jungles where the ability to physically see the pipeline often is limited.

Accordingly, another major source of commodity leaks is caused by accidental or deliberate access on the pipeline right-of-way with equipment that may damage the pipeline. With fiber-optic cables now often running along the pipeline route to enable communications with equipment on the pipeline, another technology borrowed from military applications is to deploy some of the fibers as sensors for unauthorized access to the pipeline vicinity, and even for leak detection. The cost of this technology has been reduced significantly over the last decade and is used more frequently.

JR: What do you feel will be the most significant changes, challenges or trends facing pipelines over the next 12-18 months?

CJ: As we continue in the energy transition, in developed economies, we will see less investment in logistics for hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, in some geographies we see buildout of components like Natural Gas gathering to feed the global demand for LNG.  We will continue to see rationalization of pipeline segments to see what the most efficient/highest integrity are as we continue to sustain the transportation infrastructure.

The pipelines industry needs to work with government regulators to establish additional safety regimes to satisfy the public concerns for safety – one that moves us close to a “Zero Tolerance” approach to large scale accidents. We may see pipeline operators providing more instantaneous, on-line reporting of safety-relevant data streams.

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