The safety and reliability of pipelines transporting oil and gas particularly natural gas transmission pipelines, have been under constant public scrutiny in recent years. This has led to it becoming an important and controversial issue for the general public, especially the customers.
An article by EIA states that the United States alone has about 3 million miles of mainline and other pipelines that carry oil and gas throughout the continent. It links natural gas production areas and storage facilities with customers. The U.S. natural gas pipeline network is a highly integrated network that moves natural gas throughout the continental United States. In 2019, this natural gas transportation network delivered about 28.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to about 76.9 million customers.
Preventing pipeline leaks: Pinning hopes on the current method is not enough
Prevention of leaks is the first line of defense against the release of oil and other commodities that would prove to be hazardous for the environment as well as people living nearby. The pipeline routes often pass through heavily populated “High Consequence Areas” where the risk of new structures, construction, heavy machinery, digging and other human activity all pose a real threat to pipeline infrastructure. Any one of these may result in pipeline damage or leaks that affect public health, contaminate the environment and may cause the company to incur regulatory consequences and not to mention huge monetary losses. Anthropogenic changes often represent some of the pipeline operator’s most critical risks. From protecting pipelines against corroding to avoiding geo-hazards along the pipeline route, the prevention of leaks is of paramount importance. Let’s dive into the details:
- Constant patrol and monitoring
According to a report by Facttracker, the causes of the pipeline incidents are dominated by equipment failure, where the 1,811 incidents accounted for 46% of the total. The next highest total was corrosion failure with 798 incidents or 20% of the total. Because of all the underlying dangers, pipelines need constant monitoring so as to make sure nothing goes wrong under any circumstance. With increasing scrutiny from both the general public and regulatory agencies, pipeline operators are more motivated than ever to seek out, track and catalog the multitude of encroaching human activities along their thousands of miles of pipeline. Responding proactively to threats mitigates any potential risk and protects the long-term integrity of the pipeline. Moreover, monitoring for corrosion is extremely critical for preventing environmental and safety hazards. To ensure the safety and integrity of pipelines pipeline workers regularly conduct integrity digs. But it’s tedious, as well as time-consuming and can never be done perfectly no matter how much time and effort is devoted to such an endeavor.
- Huge loss of revenue
Maintaining pipelines is no child’s play. It demands a lot of effort, labor-intensive work and most importantly, huge sums of money. On average 80% of all accidents are caused by impacts (mechanical damage) to the pipeline from a digging or excavation activity. The largest source of failure for a pipeline is damage from outside forces. Even an accidental scratch made by a farmer digging near a pipeline can, in time, turn into a dangerous and costly rupture. The United States pipeline industry incur losses worth 4 billion dollars approximately every year.
- Environmental hazards
Almost all environmental experts and activists unanimously agree that if products carried through pipelines release by any means it can cause considerable harm to the environment and may result in injuries or fatalities as well as property damage. The risk associated with pipelines varies depending on a number of factors such as the product being transported in the pipeline, size and operating pressure of the pipeline, as well as the population and natural resources near the pipeline. Other releases, such as crude oil, have greater risks for the environment in both the short and long term. Crude oil spills can result in harm to human health and the environment, including injuries or fatalities to fish and wildlife and contamination of drinking water supplies.
- Wildfire risk
For natural gas pipelines, the greatest risk is associated with fires or explosions caused by the ignition of the natural gas, this can actually cause significant property damage and injuries or death. These leaks can lead to sparks which in turn can eventually lead to massive fires. According to a report by Biologicaldiversity.org, the states of California and Texas tops the list of most number of mishaps and spills leading to sparks and wildfires. Pipeline failures are concentrated in states with a long history of oil and gas development like Texas and California but have caused damage to people, property and the environment in all 48 contiguous states. The most recent example would be a natural gas and oil explosion that occurred resulting in the loss of 1.4 million dollars worth of natural gas and oil and a fire lasting all day, in Watford City, North Dakota.
Satellite analytics is the future of pipeline monitoring
As we can clearly see from the above arguments, traditional methods are indeed outdated, expensive and are extremely prone to operational error. Heavy cost and capacity pressures drive the need to optimize pipeline utilization and operate remotely, rapidly align operations with business objectives, cut down on costs, automate complex operations and efficiently manage assets. Satellite analytics coupled with artificial intelligence provides a gainful solution to all of the above-mentioned problems. Let us understand how –
- SAR-equipped satellites combined with AI-driven data processing techniques make it possible to remotely monitor millions of miles of pipelines for injuries.
- No other method of monitoring offers the same amount of visibility as satellites do.
- They are instrumental in helping pipeline operators see structures and encroachments on the Right of Way. Moreover, monitoring vegetation along the pipelines is also possible via satellites today.
- Via satellite analytics, pipeline operators can get constantly refreshed insights satellites so that leaks and infringements can be detected at the earliest.
- The US has aging pipelines prone to erosion and statistics show that mostly pipelines leak due to erosion.
- Here satellites can help by alerting operators who in turn can send in crews to mend the problem all that is needed is a mobile app and a web dashboard.
- Most pipeline operators are not well equipped to conduct this kind of intense monitoring.
- SAR satellites can see distinctly through the darkness, haze, pollution, or any weather-related issue and produce impressive results.
- The best part is the images can be revisited as many times as needed.
- At its core, satellite analytics will be of humongous help to risk managers, field operators and the whole team in general.
Other than the far-reaching impacts on the people of a certain area and the environment as a whole, even a small leak can lead to sparks and have huge consequences costing the pipeline industry dearly. Losses often mount up to millions of dollars, enough to create a financial emergency for the company. Satellite analytics is by far the best most cost-effective way of dealing with leaks. No other method provides a 360-degree view so that not even the tiniest detail is missed and is almost ten times cheaper than using drones, LiDAR and manual patrolling. Moreover, now is the time to choose the latest technologies over the manual and laggard ones.