Managing Pipeline Monitoring in Remote Environments
For oil & gas operators, effective pipeline monitoring is an ongoing and significant challenge. Granted, in the US, the API’s pipeline performance report shows safety improving recently. This encouraging data suggests that total pipeline breaches have dropped by 17% in the past five years, giving the industry a possible glimpse of a leap towards zero pipeline incidents in years to come.
Nonetheless, monitoring and mitigating pipeline incidents remains a pressing concern globally. Whether from intentional interference such as pipeline theft or accidental damage, integrity breaches can cause severe financial, environmental, and reputational harm. And it is not just operators themselves that suffer. At a macro level, the precious cargo that pipelines carry represents a crucial source of revenue for many countries. Pipeline leaks, theft, and damage can cost billions, both through loss of the product itself and loss of confidence by investors, insurance companies, and other underwriters.
A stark example is Saudi Arabia, where oil production was cut by 50% in 2019 following drone attacks on an oilfield owned by Saudi Aramco. Moving downstream, every industry involved in the oil & gas supply chain can suffer impacts including job losses, minimum wage decreases, rising inflation, and living costs. That is before we even start to consider the potentially catastrophic environmental harm of an unnoticed pipeline spill.
In particular, pipeline threats are extremely difficult to monitor in harsh or remote locations – deserts, mountains, and rainforests, for example. Every day, incidents are happening around the world. Nigeria is losing more than 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day to vandalism, at an estimated cost of more than £4.8 billion a year. The prevalence of pipeline theft in South America is well documented, with other hot-tapping hotspots including Russia, Indonesia and Iraq, according to Oilprice.com.
What’s more, as well as pipeline leaks, theft, and ROW (heavy machinery) interference, new concerns are emerging. In May 2021, the much publicised cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline’s East Coast line caused a total shutdown of 5,500 miles of pipeline responsible for carrying 45% of the region’s fuel. The disaster happened despite efforts by US Congress to update the Pipeline Security Act to guard against the dangers of cyber attacks and terrorism.
Why are pipeline breaches difficult to manage in remote locations?
Pipelines typically cover vast expanses of often very remote terrain. They are, by their very nature, difficult to monitor and access quickly. Physically travelling to the location of suspected pipeline damage can be a complex, lengthy, and sometimes dangerous undertaking. Traditional pipeline monitoring techniques include CCTV, aerial surveillance, ground radars and line walking. But none of these can observe the pipeline directly if it is buried in a jungle, for example, where dense natural canopies restrict visibility. And, even if visibility is good, these systems cannot feasibly monitor the whole length of the pipeline simultaneously – nor can they accurately determine where and why the threat is occurring. Yet, the ability to quickly understand the exact location and cause of a pipeline breach is vitally important. Such intelligence equips pipeline operators to take fast, accurate remedial action with minimum disruption to the surrounding environment, and minimum risk to the company’s personnel.
The Limitations of Traditional PIDS in monitoring pipeline security
Pipeline Intrusion Detection Systems (PIDS) have long played a part in pipeline monitoring – but their capabilities are limited – unlike modern DAS systems such as LivePIPE® and LivePIPE II®. Traditionally, PIDS rely on internally based systems that deploy computer modelling methods, such as mass balance and real-time transient modelling (RTTM). The reality is that these systems have long detection times and very low sensitivity to small pipeline leaks or breaches. Given the volume of product that a pipeline carries, even the smallest delay in pipeline monitoring detection can have a vast impact. The standard minimum leak detection requirement for many pipeline operators is 1% of the pipeline flow rate. In a pipeline carrying 16 million litres of oil per day, this amounts to 160,000 litres of flowrate lost per day before any leak is detected.
The role of DAS fibre optic sensing in safeguarding pipelines
Distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) technology is proving to be a game-changer when it comes to effective pipeline leak, theft, and damage detection. Where fibre optic cables run alongside a pipeline, DAS converts those cables into highly sensitive, vibrational sensors that constantly monitor acoustics along the line. This enables DAS to pinpoint the location of a threat to within just metres. Cutting-edge artificial intelligence and machine learning enables DAS to interpret that acoustic data with incredible accuracy. For instance, DAS can inform an operator of whether the threat is likely to be human interference such as pipeline theft, ROW interference such as heavy machinery excavation, or a natural breach such as a burst line.
In hostile or hard-to-reach environments, this level of intelligence is crucial to the pipeline security response. Take theft as an example. Hot tapping is often carried out by organised criminal gangs, presenting a real threat to security teams who may manually attend the site with little idea of what awaits them. By utilising UAV integration with DAS, the situation can be quickly and accurately investigated before a security team is deployed. Advancing drone technology now makes it possible to fly the drone to the location, identify the criminals, warn them that they have been spotted, and even follow them – without any physical presence at the site at all.
Similarly, in the case of accidental damage, Fotech’s field tests consistently demonstrate the benefits of DAS in alerting pipeline operators that a threat is real and imminent. Importantly, this is not just about identifying genuine pipeline security risks. It is also about eliminating false alarms. For pipeline operators, the expense and logistics of excavation works is considerable, and even more so when the work must be completed in remote locations or hostile conditions. The right DAS modular system, correctly calibrated, can raise the alarm within just 90 seconds, pinpointing the location of the issue to within just metres. It can also distinguish between genuine issues along the pipeline and other, harmless acoustic vibrations. That can potentially save millions in unnecessary remedial works, protect local natural environments from disturbance and optimise the operator’s response. The business of safeguarding pipeline assets will never be easy. But, as DAS technology continues to evolve, pipeline monitoring is likely to become more efficient and less risk prone as time goes on.
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