Pipeline safety is no longer a matter of responding to accidents or managing the after-effects of a leak or operational failure. In the last decade, operators and service technicians have adopted a new baseline understanding for the safety of pipeline assets, reliant upon the latest technological solutions and innovative engineering feats.

Conventional risk assessment models – reactive, and often mandated by law – were inherently dated because the technical capabilities of predicting hazards before they occurred simply hadn’t become viable. However, in today’s world of intense regulatory scrutiny and advanced leak detection systems, operators are now able to confront risks before they unfold. This method of prevention not only enables operators to remain compliant with federal, state and local guidelines, but also protect their assets from degradation, downtime and mechanical failure.

Underlying this shift in capability is better risk assessment: continual risk-based inspections by highly trained experts who can flush out potential weaknesses or inefficiencies in a pipeline’s structure. The information gathered from these inspections is then relayed to appropriate engineers and stakeholders so that infrastructure can be modified or strengthened if needed. As such, operators can keep their assets operational and reduce the possibility of environmental risks.

‘Risk-based inspections can help root out weaknesses.”

Identifying risk factors
One of the most prominent issues with previous attempts to reduce hazards was that there was little understanding of what actually constituted failure. For instance, some operators may have used an internal system of assessing failure, while others simply measured failure based on the number of leaks per mile or perhaps the amount of time pipelines spent out of operation.

Today, risk is categorized into actionable, verifiable units, so operators know when pipelines are at risk of failure. This development is traced back to what types of structural issues are being measured and how they are documented.

Corrosion is the single largest cause of pipeline failure due to the sheer presence of water, gases, chemicals and other corrosive elements below ground and inside the walls of the pipeline. Under this intense exposure oxidization occurs, effectively weakening the structural integrity of the pipeline, beginning with small cratering or pitting. Over time, and without proper maintenance, these minor breaches corrode further, creating stress cracks and eventually causing a leak or full break.

Risk-based inspections can help root out these types of weaknesses by calculating pressure levels within the pipeline. Engineers also use hydraulic transients to send warning signals to wireless sensors along the length of the pipeline so that any inefficiency can be identified quickly.

Addressing potential concerns
The data collected from these assessments serves as a foundation for future changes. Once problematic areas are located, operators can focus more attention on improving certain components of the pipeline where issues frequently arise. Not only does this allow for better management and distribution of resources, but it also offers operators keen insight into which parts of the pipeline are most susceptible of failure.

“Risk assessments offer operators insight into which parts of the pipeline are most susceptible to failure.”

As risk assessments build collective knowledge of the infrastructure, operators stay ahead of common risks that pose a serious threat to their companies. In many cases, pipeline failures are entirely preventable from the start, had operators only taken steps to address actionable evidence of these concerns.

After receiving verification of the loss of mechanical strength, engineers can apply protective coatings or install secondary walls to mitigate further weakness. Or, if a risk-based inspection uncovers larger malformations in the structure of the pipeline, operators may have to shut down a portion of the pipeline to ensure they are compliant with safety regulations.

risksInsulating against future risks
The goal of risk assessments is to determine just how stable and secure pipelines truly are. This is necessary information for operators, safety inspectors, regulatory agencies and the general populace in the surrounding areas. Oil and gas companies understand how much of an impact a small leak can have, especially if the problem is not resolved quickly.

Whether it’s a standard compliance inspection from the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a state-mandated qualification inspection or an internal assessment of integrity management, operators have a host of service options at their disposal.