As pipeline incidents increase year on year, regulatory bodies need to establish proactive measures that will minimise pipeline accidents and the subsequent damage

Last month, the Plains All American Pipeline spilled approximately 4,200 gallons of crude oil near St Louis. A few months earlier, a pipeline from the same operator created a 9-mile oil sick along the Californian coast, resulting in financial repercussions of $92 million and causing the deaths of nearly 300 marine animals.

Furthermore, out of more than 1,700 pipeline operators monitored by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, Plains Pipeline LP ranked fifth in the number of infractions reported since 2006 - totalling 175 incidents in the period.

This is just the most recent data to be published. However, they provide an interesting perspective. If it is assumed that each of these 1,700 pipeline operators only experienced one incident in the period since 2006, never mind more than 100, the total cost of the environmental damage and lost product would still be phenomenal.

This highlights the importance of pipeline security and raises a serious question that the industry needs to consider: Should pipeline security be the sole responsibility of operators, or should regulators be doing more to mandate more stringent safety measures?

With leaks, malicious and accidental damage to pipelines on the rise, it is now paramount that existing security measures are coupled with firmer industry regulations to stiffen the legally required preventative measures to help avoid pipeline incidents in the first instance.

The UK government recently empowered the Oil and Gas Authority to fine operators up to £1 million and revoke their licenses in the event of an oil spill. However, while aimed to be a deterrent, reactive measures like this have so far retained minimal impact after the incident has been resolved and therefore remain ineffective in preventing future pipeline issues.

Existing pipeline monitoring techniques typically still rely on guards physically walking along the length of the pipeline or ground radars and CCTV systems, both of which are restricted in their surveillance capabilities and range. This means that ultimately, operators do not have enough visibility of what is happening along the entire length of the pipeline, making it difficult to effectively manage and protect them.

These traditional monitoring technologies remain a key part of pipeline security. However, it must be recognised that technologies such as Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) offer a step change in terms of what is possible in pipeline safety and monitoring and we think it is time that regulators looked at mandating DAS for all pipeline installations as a vital complement to more traditional measures. It is time for industry bodies to play a bigger role in pipeline safety. By establishing regulations that leverage the latest technologies, operators will be able to enhance pipeline monitoring and minimise incidents. 

Pipeline operators need access to equipment that will deliver real-time and actionable data. Having such information means that operators will be able to anticipate potential pipeline threats, manage their threat responses more effectively and react in a timely manner before they become expensive disasters. DAS is the only technology that can provide this level of visibility and insight.