Pipeline inspection companies face increasing demands from asset owners and operators to do more with less. As any sort of failure — whether a leak or a rupture — is met with intense public scrutiny, the industry has developed a zero-tolerance attitude for these incidents.
Through regulatory mandate and innovation, inspection companies have developed high-tech tools to better detect anomalies and damage to pipelines in an effort to support safety and integrity across the millions of miles of oil and gas pipelines throughout North America. But as technology has evolved, so too have owner and operator demands for higher accuracy and better-quality data.
Inline inspection (ILI) tools can perform a variety of tasks, such as detect and characterize metal loss, cracks and geometry deformations (aka dents, wrinkles, buckles, ovalities, etc.). The industry is rife with acronyms like UT for ultrasonic technology, MFL for magnetic flux leakage, POD for probability of detection and plenty more. While the alphabet soup may get confusing, the technology these abbreviations represent allow pipeline inspection companies to better inform owners and operators about their critical assets.
As more data is collected about oil and gas pipelines, integrity management now has the chance to become more proactive, says Chris Yoxall, a vice president of the ROSEN Group.
“Often, the industry focuses on what has happened in the past,” Yoxall says. “While we certainly can learn from the past, having a reactive approach will only take us so far.”
As the pipeline industry moves toward a mentality of zero incidents, Yoxall says that it grows increasingly important to obtain high-quality inspection data and use it for predictive analytics.
Looking into the future, pipeline operators will continue to demand not just more data, but better data, says Nathan Leslie, chief sales officer at NDT Global.
“We’ll continue to see ILI grow, with operators completing more inspections,” Leslie says. “There will be a shift to higher quality data, and we will be challenged to deliver higher accuracy for the detection and sizing of deformities.”
In fact, the pipeline inspection market already has been growing over the past decade, Leslie says. Depending on the research you look at, it continues to grow by 4 to 6 percent annually.
“North American growth originates from a couple of areas,” Leslie says. “There is a glut of product in oilfield areas like West Texas and the Permian Basin. They can’t get the product out fast enough. When you build a new pipeline, it requires a baseline ILI survey to get online. The United States has an aging infrastructure that is developing more and more features, like cracks and metal loss, and that deformation must be addressed. And not to forget regulations are getting more prescriptive in mandating how an operator manages its lines. Those are the big drivers right now.”
Yoxall adds that the pipeline inspection industry has also matured, and advancements in technology allows service providers to detect anomalies that might not have been identifiable in the past.
“As technology advances and more data is being collected, operators need a way to integrate that information into one single source,” Yoxall says, “where it can be processed in a way to gain a precise picture of the current and future behavior of their asset.”
“Perhaps the biggest way that the pipeline inspection industry has changed is that operators have become more sensitive to failures,” Leslie says. Increasingly, pipeline operators view “a failure for one is a failure for all.”
“Operators are demanding better technology and better solutions to ensure they don’t have failures,” Leslie says. “Seven years ago, some failures were acceptable, as consequences were not as severe as they are now. It is critical for everybody’s business to protect the environment. We have to be vigilant about stopping failures.”
The biggest focus for the industry today is on improved accuracy when detecting threats to pipeline integrity.
“There is a common focus in the pipeline inspection industry on complex features,” Yoxall says. “While single defects may pose a threat to operational safety, combined features, such as corrosion in dents, introduce an even bigger risk to the overall safety of the asset.”
Better accuracy of pipeline inspection data that provides a better probability of detection eases the minds of pipeline operators, Leslie adds.
“One thing that keeps operators up at night is a concern of dents or deformation from metal loss or cracks,” Leslie says. “Recent events have put this issue at the forefront for a lot of operators. Finding fatigue cracks from dents and detecting defects can be difficult, but luckily we have developed technology to detect these features.”
Yoxall and Leslie agree that pipeline operators are considering alternative options to hydro-testing for validating maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) when applicable.
“The main driver is the demand to provide higher resolution, more accurate, more precise technology to detect size and classify injurious features,” Leslie says. “The pipeline industry wants 100 percent POD. Many operators are looking to move away from hydro-testing and replace those tests with ILI.”
In addition to the limitations of hydrostatic testing, Yoxall adds that cost is another concern.
“The problem with dependency on hydro-testing is that it requires an operational shutdown, which can be costly,” Yoxall says. “Additionally, a hydro-test only shows one piece of the puzzle, critical features may even go undetected.”
Hook cracks are one particular type of defect causing concern today among pipeline operators in North America, Leslie says. Hook cracks occur on the long seam of a pipeline.
“Unlike straight-line cracks, hook cracks curve and hook like a J-shape,” Leslie explains. “Once a crack starts to turn like that, it becomes especially problematic as they grow fast, and they can interact with laminations or other cracks. They propagate over time, and may not show up on a hydro-test, but they can lead to failures.”
“Requirements on our industry are increasingly growing, which means that we need to keep up by being more efficient, accomplishing more in less time,” Yoxall says.
Despite the competition in the market, Yoxall adds that everyone in the pipeline industry has a common interest.
“In the past, our industry was mainly driven by performance and cost. Now, we’re driven more by safety, and we’re united in that effort,” Yoxall says. “Our challenge is to collaborate with all players in our industry to make sure we are reaching excellence in integrity management without exceptions.”
Leslie sees a lot of opportunity in the market.
“There are not a lot of headwinds for the pipeline inspection industry. I see sails,” Leslie says. “Regulations are becoming more prescriptive. The wind’s at our back on this. For some, there may be challenges in terms of improving accuracy and efficiency. We welcome that challenge. This is a great environment for us.”
Yoxall adds that regulations are just a fact of life in the pipeline industry. As operators have been required to perform more pipeline inspections on their assets, regulations have continued to evolve.
“Regulation is always there,” Yoxall says. “It impacts all our lives. When we drive a car, we might have an alarm for our speed, we have traffic signs, and these are important for everyone’s safety. In our industry, regulations are the minimum requirement. The goal should not be to only meet these requirements, but to take initiative and exceed those standards of safety.”
One of the areas where regulations have evolved is the increased focus on high consequence areas (HCAs) and now medium consequence areas (MCAs). However, Leslie sees more collaboration from rule makers.
“The regulators are working more with the pipeline operators and industry associations to find the best solutions to ensure the safe operation of pipelines,” Leslie says. “There’s more collaboration happening on the part of the regulators, and I think that is a good thing.”
Yoxall agrees that collaboration is integral to improving the industry.
“We have to keep working together,” Yoxall says. “Regulations are constantly evolving, so we, as innovators, need to make sure we are a few steps ahead of the game. We make research and development a top priority, to ensure the most advanced technology is available to our industry. For this to be successful, we need to work closely with key stakeholders to understand their needs not only today, but also in 10 years or more down the road.
“Our goal is to be a true partner along the entire asset lifecycle,” Yoxall adds. “We support operators throughout the entire integrity management process, providing them with not only accurate and reliable data, but also with the means to understand what that data means for the current and future integrity of their asset.”
This improvement in integrity management, Leslie says, is the only way for the pipeline inspection industry to survive and thrive.
“We have to get more accurate information,” Leslie says. “And we have to be a good partner to operator to ensure they don’t have a failure. If you cannot do this, you won’t be around for long. Operators are no longer going to tolerate 80 percent probability of detection. You have to do better, and they are demanding it.”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.