Pipeline security and leak prevention has long been an industry concern. However, with new legislation in the US aimed at creating a safer pipeline transportation network across the country, the industry could be on the cusp of real change

Pipelines remain one of the securest modes of transporting oil and gas and yet we continue to see multiple large-scale incidents reported every year.

In our last blog, we looked at pipeline security issues in Nigeria and the serious leaks we’ve seen as a result. However, pipeline leak incidents are not just limited to developing countries. There have been some particularly high profile incidents across North America too. One of the most prominent examples is the Keystone pipeline leak reported earlier this year, where 17,000 gallons of oil leaked in South Dakota. In fact, between 1995 and 2015, the PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) recorded over 11,000 pipeline incidents in the U.S., and the frequency appears to be increasing – 709 incidents were logged in 2015, compared to 381 in 1995.

Of course, the scale of damage that these pipeline incidents can cause is widely recognised. However, last month the industry welcomed a major step taken by the U.S. government when it approved new legislation designed to enhance pipeline integrity and safety. One of the key drivers behind the bill was the 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, which destroyed 38 homes and killed 8 people. Branded as one of the biggest explosions in recent history, sadly it could likely have been prevented.  

Key elements of the bill include requiring operators to frequently update safety regulations, increasing post-incident transparency and encouraging the use of emerging technologies, particularly to help prevent third party intrusion. It also urges the PHMSA to become a more efficient and data-driven agency.

Senator Cory Brooker, a ranking member of the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee described the legislation as “bringing us closer to our goal of implementing important oversight and accountability measures, encouraging the use of new technology, and helping [to] ensure safer communities […] around the country.”

Crucially the bill re-emphasises the government’s pledge to push the oil and gas industry to achieve zero incidents. Over the coming months, it will be interesting to see exactly how the bill is implemented in practice and what measures operators will take to meet the zero incident target.

To achieve a real step change in pipeline security, we believe that the Government should formally require operators to deploy truly holistic systems that incorporate the latest innovations. Only by combining traditional security measures with new technologies, such as DAS, into a central management system can operators really hope to prevent incidents. It is only with such holistic systems that it is possible to achieve complete visibility of an entire pipeline and enable rapid responses to be made to avoid or minimise the damage of potential incidents.

While it is just the U.S. government that has introduced this legislation so far, we hope to see other governments follow suit. Europe is heavily dependent on pipeline networks for its energy and in regions like the Middle East and Africa oil remains a major contributor to the economy. As such, stronger safety legislation and investment in new security technologies can only be beneficial. With America taking the lead perhaps we will soon see developments in other regions.