In a previous blog, we looked at new legislation that the US government recently approved in order to improve pipeline integrity and safety, targeting a goal of zero incidents. These tightening regulations are a major factor in forecasts of growth in the leak detection technology market. A recent industry report predicted that the North American leak detection market is likely to start recovering from 2017 onwards and is projected to hit $1.58 billion by 2022.

Nevertheless, new regulations need to be supported with clear actionable steps that operators can take to improve security measures or we will continue to see severe incidents. It was only in July when Husky Energy reported a pipeline leak of 200-250 cubic metres into the North Saskatchewan River that wasn’t detected or shut down until more than 14 hours later. Worryingly, the company issued a statement saying that it had ‘analysed the data and sent a crew to look at the area but it did not identify a leak’.

Of course pipeline leaks can be very hard to detect. Pipelines cover huge expanses of land and existing Compensated Mass Balance leak detection systems have serious limitations as a standalone solution. As a result, leak incidents continue to be a relatively common occurrence with all of the associated financial and environmental costs.

However, if regulators and operators are serious about achieving a zero incident environment then the latest monitoring tools need to be integrated alongside existing surveillance technologies to achieve a real change in terms of leak detection.

Systems such as LivePIPE, based on Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) technology, give operators continuous visibility of the entire pipeline network and enable them to react to potential incidents more quickly and effectively than traditional methods allow. Connecting directly into an operator’s fibre optic network, DAS converts a standard optical fibre, attached or adjacent to the pipeline, into tens of thousands of highly sensitive vibrational sensors. When vibrations disturb the fibre, LivePIPE can accurately identify a number of specific acoustic ‘signatures’ that may be generated by a leak, alerting operators to potential leaks in real-time.

As market conditions begin to improve and regulators focus on tightening legislation, technologies such as LivePIPE are increasingly important for the pipeline industry. Operators need to be able to mitigate against incidents rather than addressing them reactively. Forecast growth in leak detection technologies needs to come from investment in more holistic approaches, integrating more modern technologies rather than relying on standalone point solutions. Assuming ‘business as usual’ will meet the demands of regulators would be a strategic mistake for the industry.