As regulatory bodies crack down on negligence and human error, pipeline operators are under increasing pressure to tighten their safety measures

At the end of February, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) fined Murphy Oil $128,773 for a pipeline spill that occurred in the Peace River area in January 2015. The regulator found that the leak had gone undetected for over six weeks, causing 1.4 million litres of condensate to contaminate an area of 13,000 square metres and although the pipeline has since been repaired, the cleanup process is still ongoing.

Pipeline security has been under scrutiny around the world for some time now but it is a particularly prominent issue in Canada, as Alberta seeks new routes to the east and west Canadian coasts for its oil. However, the provincial government has already indicated that human error will no longer be tolerated as an excuse for serious incidents and it is now taking a hard line to combat negligence. Part of this process includes publicly shaming offenders, which the AER has enabled with the launch of a new website that allows the public to easily see the companies that are lagging behind on pipeline safety.

By bringing the scale of the issue under such a harsh spotlight and by highlighting the financial and reputational consequences at stake, AER has forced operators in the region to reassure their shareholders that they are fully committed to pipeline safety and environmental issues.

Although renewed regulatory pressure has been met by some resistance from local producers, ultimately AER’s policy has successfully forced producers of all sizes to re-evaluate their safety measures. There is no doubt that investment into the latest monitoring technologies needs to be a part of the mix.

Fibre optic based sensing solutions such as LivePIPE are essential in helping operators to understand what is happening along the entire length of their pipelines at all times. By analyzing the multiple streams of acoustic and temperature data generated by a leak incident in tandem with sophisticated algorithms that distil this data into confident alarms, solutions like LivePIPE can provide operators with reliable and actionable information; Operators can react within minutes of the first sign of a leak and direct their resources effectively, regardless of whether the incident is a result of malicious, accidental or corrosive damage.

Last month’s unprecedented step taken by the AER is a real step change for the industry and if successful, it is likely that other regulatory bodies will take similar action. It is therefore in operators’ interests to ensure that their processes are as tight as they can be, as the consequences of failure are going to be costlier than ever before.