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Pipeline Integrity vs. Climate Change

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The Increased Importance of Traceability in American Pipeline Networks

The role of oil and gas in the global energy transition may still be as yet unknown, but in the here and now, there is still an overwhelming need to keep pipelines as efficient as possible.

Knowing where issues with structural integrity may arise is critical, and clear traceability processes are key to preventing costly issues overwhelming the framework.

Climate change is starting to have an impact on the pipeline network. The warning signs have already been seen through thawing permafrost around the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Though the original designs drawn up in the 1970s did account for changing permafrost conditions, climate change is a different entity and one that we are now able to better predict and understand the consequences of.

The state of Alaska is warming twice as fast as the global average, making the thawing of permafrost — which needs to be frozen at all times, so as to not impact the pipeline structure — a very real concern. A spill or leak anywhere along the pipeline will have serious environmental and economic consequences, especially when one considers areas of pipeline running through isolated wilderness or hostile environmental conditions.

Typically, pipelines are routinely inspected every 10 years, depending on how vulnerable and critical they are. Given our environment is changing, is this soon enough? And what can be done to keep pipelines working at their full potential? Traceability may hold the solution.

Thanks to advancements in technology and data, there are more tools than ever available in maintaining onshore and offshore pipelines. Remote operated vehicles (ROVs), which are vital in the inspections carried out in the Gulf of Mexico, are able to dive to much greater depths and send back clearer images than their predecessors, and visual inspections of onshore pipelines have been bolstered by technology such as drones and ultrasound, to name just a few.

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These enhancements will, without question, continue to be essential in getting the full picture of the condition of specific sections of the North American pipeline network, particularly in the changing times we are currently living in.
Traceability data has made it possible to gather in-depth information about specific sections of pipeline, such as where it was manufactured, what processes were carried out in its construction, and even down to what the weather was like during a previous inspection and manufacture.

Through the use of in-line inspection technology (ILI), inspectors are able to assess the internal condition of the pipeline. This is verified by subsequent inspections of the same line, from which key information such as degradation rate can be calculated, and by extension, any repairs can be actioned to maximize the life of the pipeline.

ILI is expensive to conduct, making it counter-productive (and less cost-effective) to perform these on a more regular basis than the accepted 10 years. But it is possible to see where other issues may arise as a consequence of cathodic protection, which shields the pipeline from external corrosion. Cathodic protection surveys can measure the corrosivity of the soil, in the case of buried pipelines, and the overall condition of the protective layer.

With climate change altering the conditions in which the pipeline is situated, the data obtained by these surveys and inspections must be accessible in order for the appropriate maintenance to be taken.

Additional investigations could be needed to be carried out in order to ensure the pipeline is able cope with different expectations placed on it, from which coating damages may need addressing.

Cathodic protection can also fail as a consequence of an issue with power supply and a break elsewhere along the pipeline, therefore it is essential to gain as much information about the specific segment as possible, so that the correct solution can be implemented.

With a wider dataset to draw from, two inspections carried out years apart can be performed with the same specific ILI tools. This lessens the probability of false readings and comparing the two sets of data gives the greatest calculation of metal loss in between the dates of the two inspections, as well as the most likely date for the next inspection.

Consistency is a fundamental aspect of traceability. Where possible, having a single point of contact for pipeline manufacture, again, limits the risks of human error, as is true for using one organization to analyze the data gathered by ILI inspections. Within that data, every joint and every piece of metal used within the construction of the pipeline is accountable and can be traced back to the original manufacturer, their quality certification, and other critical information, extending all the way back to the environmental factors and materials used when the section was first made.

All of this builds a detailed picture of the state of the pipeline network, invaluable in maximizing the operability in key sections. This, in turn, enables operators to make safe and cost-effective measures which will also prevent downtime disruption.

These decisions can be made at localized level to prevent wider issues developing elsewhere on the pipeline network. The data is able to identify whether an anomaly is caused by a specific external factor, such as air temperature, or whether it is the operation or materials that need closer examination. ILIs show what might need closer attention — understanding the details is what will resolve the issue afterwards.

As Vysus Group has seen, traceability is perhaps one of the most effective means of optimizing pipelines. Our consultants are proficient in aligning new and existing planned maintenance data sets together, resulting in significant monetary and labour cost-savings without impacting on output.

Pipelines are the veins and arteries of the global energy network. In the same way as the human body relies on these vital pathways for us to work, maintaining the health of our pipelines allows for a connected world that is always functioning at the highest possible level.

Alvaro Camacho is a senior integrity engineer at energy consultancy, Vysus Group, a standalone engineering and technical firm that was formerly Lloyd’s Register. Camacho is an experienced senior corrosion and integrity engineer, with 25 years of experience, both in the field and consulting.

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