Monitoring pipeline leaks
The network of oil pipelines that stretch across the United States rely heavily on a high-tech leak-detection system to ensure safe transportation.
Devika Krishna Kumar and her colleague Jarrett Renshaw co-wrote an investigation for Reuters on the technology designed to monitor pipeline leaks, how it fails, and what happens to ecosystems when those failures occur.
She joins me now.
So, you know, this has gotten a lot of press recently because of the situation at the Dakota Access Pipeline.
There's been people thinking about the Keystone Pipeline.
But what are the existing safety measures that we have for U.S. pipelines?
So, it's a combination of methods that pipeline operators typically use when it comes to pipeline safety.
It includes having a monitoring tool to make sure that the flow rates, the pressure, and the temperature is maintained throughout the length of the pipeline.
There are other methods, like overhead flights, that they operate on a routine basis to make sure that there are no leaks, and they have regular inspections.
They have someone go out there and actually inspect the right-of-way.
So, they kind of make sure that it happens on a regular basis, to make sure that they are operating safely.
We have thousands of miles of pipe, right?
I mean, and some of them are really old, some of them are very new.
The new ones have sensors built in that can do all this stuff.
What about the old ones?
It's been in practice for more than 40, 50 years, the current technology that's in play.
It's called a SCADA system.
It stands for 'Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition.'
So, that's exactly what it is.
It just accumulates all this data about what is flowing in the pipeline and how it's flowing, and it relays that information to a control room, where operators look at it, and they determine whether everything is normal.
And nearly all the pipelines in the U.S., especially liquid pipelines, have this technology incorporated.
So, what did your investigation find?
That they're not as effective as you would imagine.
Like I said, it's essentially just a monitoring tool.
That has not been developed enough to detect leaks, especially of small quantities.
So, the way that it works is, because this tool, this system, can monitor pressure and flow rates and temperature, whenever there's a slight change in pressure, which is what happens when there's a leak or a rupture, it tells the control-room operators that there's a change in pressure.
And then they have to then determine whether that is genuinely a leak or not.
So, there's a human part to this, too.
There's a lot of training involved.
And they are trained to tell the difference between a regular shift in pressure and when there's an actual leak.
And the rate of error, margin of error for these kind of determinations are pretty high.
Our research analysis of federal data found that, out of about 500 incidents over the last few years, nearly as many incidents that were found by this technology was also found by just a random member of the public.
22% of the cases were found by the system, were detected by the system, and nearly as much by a member of the public.
So, what about the ones that weren't caught by the system or the public?
In the sense that, if somebody hadn't stumbled upon it...
...are there leaks that are evading the system?
So, what happens then is, they have community lines set up.
Most pipeline operators make sure that they communicate with the communities around the area.
So it takes longer, as you can imagine, for someone living in the neighborhood -- 'cause all these pipelines, like you said, are out of the way, and they're not typically in a heavily-populated area.
So, for someone to be able to notice that, it takes a while.
The leak may have progressed for a few days, hours.
It depends on how long it takes.
So, in Colonial Pipeline's case, a mining inspector happened upon the leak, and he noticed dead vegetation and animals, and that's when he notified the company and he said, 'There's a leak here.'
So, what kind of effects are there to the ecosystem?
I mean, obviously it depends on the fluids that's going through the pipe.
I mean, if it's water, it's much less so than if it's some sort of a heavy chemical.
So, the Hazardous Material Safety Administration, they track and monitor to make sure that -- that's the federal agency that makes sure that pipeline operators do ensure safety when they operate on a day-to-day basis.
But when there is a leak, it can vary in intensity.
There are two kinds of leaks, essentially, two categories.
One is a regular leak, and the other one is a rupture.
And the rupture is much more significant in terms of the damage it causes.
That usually is accompanied by an explosion of some sort, or significantly more damage.
The volume is much higher.
The volume is typically much higher, and you -- In the most recent case, on Colonial Pipeline again, workers were trying to repair an earlier leak, and the excavator hit the surface of the pipeline, and that caused an explosion, resulting in the death of two workers.
So, in worst-case scenario, we're looking at human death and fatalities.
But, of course, there's an environmental impact.
The soil can get contaminated.
There's vegetation that grows there that can be affected for months to come depending on how deep the hazardous material has seeped.
And, of course, we're talking about waterways and rivers and sources of water, as well, that can be contaminated if there is a leak on a pipeline that flows around the area.
So, are there improvements coming down to improve this technology or monitoring?
Well, there are some advancements that have been made.
So, on top of a basic system like SCADA, they are adding a few layers to it.
For example, the CPM, which is called Computational Pipeline Model.
That is a method that is touted as one of the more advanced ways to detect leaks, and that's the one that was meant to be a part of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, as well.
And it was said that it could detect leaks as small as 1% of the flow rate.
And that's significant because the technology that is in place right now is more suited to detect bigger leaks.
So, when there's a small volume, it's not easily detected, or it causes false alarms.
So, when you can tune it down to detect smaller leaks, that's considered an advancement.
And there are other ways besides these internal systems.
Fiber optics, for instance, is a method that's being widely considered.
The drawback with that for pipeline operators was that it was always considered a more expensive option, because you have to cover the entire length of the pipeline, make sure there are sensors.
And it's hard to maintain for them.
But it is definitely more effective, as you can imagine, 'cause it can detect as soon as there's even a small release.
Devika Krishna Kumar from Reuters.
Thanks for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me.