A study of the US’s oil and gas pipeline systems revealed some alarming data. The recent statistics found there were more than 125 fatalities and over 800 fires in just about nine years. These incidents cost oil companies billions of dollars in damages alone and involved the evacuation of about thirty thousand people. While regulations and standards are in place to safely manage gas pipelines, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) asserts that, for instance, only about five percent of gathering pipes are subject to the safety regulations laid down by PHMSA. The study further revealed that distribution pipes were responsible for the most number of fatalities, injuries, evacuations, explosions, and fires.
The Essential Need for Pipeline Inspections in Oil and Gas
Pipeline safety and accident control are not the only concerns for oil and gas companies. Damage, wear, corrosion, metal loss, and malfunctions can impact the pipes’ performance and result in delays and productivity losses, ultimately affecting the bottom line. This makes oil and gas inspections a vital part of pipeline management. Inspection companies offer several solutions; deploying pipeline inspectors, leveraging various pipeline technologies and pipeline inspection tools to cover extensive gas line inspections. These pipeline inspections provide a vast amount of data. This helps companies pre-empt risks, ensure asset integrity, enhance productivity, and ensure public and environmental safety.
Let’s understand more about pipeline inspection and some of the risks they help manage.
The interaction of a material with its environment can destroy its substance over time. For example, oil and gas pipelines carry products of varying impurities, including free water, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide, which can cause severe corrosion levels resulting in thickness reduction and impact the material’s strength and flexibility. It is estimated that corrosion costs the oil and gas industry over 1.3 billion dollars annually. Therefore, pipeline inspectors continuously monitor pollution using electrochemical, mechanical, and electrical devices or probes, which give inspection teams data on wall thickness, weak spots in the pipeline, and the corrosion rate. With this data, pipeline management teams implement corrosion handling techniques. These could include different approaches.
- Protective coatings – These are designed as protective layers over the material to prevent direct contact with the products they carry. They are metallic or non-metallic linings and may include materials like epoxy, fiberglass, etc.
- Inhibitors – These are substances used to prevent corrosion; they operate in two ways, either by merging with the pipeline material or by neutralizing the impurities through a reaction.
- Cathodic technique – In this method, electrical currents reduce the difference between anode and cathode, making the whole structure of one single potential.
- Material selection – Stainless steels of different grades contain different alloys, each having other corrosion resistance properties. Using different materials is often an approach used to minimize corrosion.
Cracks can develop in pipelines at any deployment or operations process stage. For example, they could be traced during the manufacturing stage, while installing, or during project operations. They are usually not easy to spot with the naked eye, and yet they can pose serious risks to safety and operational efficiency if unattended to. Many highly sophisticated methods and advanced technologies are used to identify such cracks, precisely locate them and size them to assess the risks involved. They also help estimate the current and potential impact on pipeline functioning and the necessary repairs and remediation. Pipeline inspectors use various techniques, including liquid-coupled ultrasonic or dry-coupled electromagnetic technologies. They also deploy ultrasonic shear wave technology to help identify and size axial-oriented cracks and use circumferential magnetic flux leakage technology, among other methods.
Pipeline Geometry and Mapping
Oil companies must constantly monitor the soundness of their pipelines through geometric analysis and map them so that operations teams can quickly locate pipeline joints, identify defects, cracks and leaks, and create drawings and maps for ready reference. For instance, geometry and caliper tools examine the out-of-roundness of pipes typically associated with denting or pipeline movement. In addition, companies use essential gauging tools and intelligent inline inspection devices to study the interior of a pipeline. Companies also use advanced mapping systems to locate, profile and visualize pipelines for easier access and management. These include techniques like Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) which leverage several sensors to map moving objects, or Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to capture geographical profiles of specific locations for creating maps, analyzing geographical changes, and visualizing pipeline infrastructure accurately.
Inline gas pipeline inspections refer to a pipe inspection method conducted from within using internal pipe inspection equipment to spot anomalies, cracks, etc., and identify repairs and fixes required at various points in the pipeline. Pipe inspectors conduct pipeline integrity tests to forecast the current and future integrity of the pipeline. They also identify corrosion development and conduct pipeline curvature and bending strain assessments to identify locations where ground stability impacts pipeline integrity. Other types of tests include crack assessment and dent assessment which help companies prioritize maintenance tasks based on risk level and the criticality of identified issues.
A Pig is a “Pipeline Intervention Gadget” used to inspect or clean pipelines from within so that they are free of obstructions and blocks and enable the optimal flow of liquids and gases in the pipeline. Pigs are of different types. Some of these are Utility Pigs, which help seal gas pipes and are also used for dewatering and cleaning. On the other hand, Gel pigs are chemicals like highly viscous gels and rigid polymers used in pipelines where regular pigs cannot be used. Many older pipelines come under this category of un-piggable lines because of their design, accessibility, or the presence of unique internal structures and bends that could hinder a pig from moving through seamlessly. Modern oil companies use “smart” pigs, which contain several high-tech devices like RF modules, ultrasonic sensors, etc., to take pipeline measurements, assess the thickness, track temperature readings, calculate metal loss, etc.
Outside force refers to factors from the external environment that impact pipelines. Unnoticed, some of this damage, whether caused accidentally or intentionally by third parties, can result in significant repair costs, pipeline disruptions, and even failure. Ground movement is another factor that often causes what is known as fatigue cracking. As a result, oil companies rely on robust pipe inspections usually conducted by specialized oil pipeline inspection agencies. One of the vital outside force detection techniques involves sensing equipment to track acoustic waves caused when pipelines are impacted in some way. Measuring these sound waves helps inspection teams identify the severity and location of pipeline impact to plan repairs and remediation measures effectively.
Fielda – Simplifying Pipeline Inspections
Modern inspection and field data collection apps like Fielda help oil and gas companies maintain their essential pipeline infrastructure network for optimum performance and business efficiency. Fielda empowers inspectors with custom checklists for a variety of inspection routines. In addition, it offers offline data capture functionality for inspection in off-grid locations and enables seamless real-time data integration with a company’s central database. This means reports and dashboards are generated instantly and allow management teams with critical intelligence to make calculated and well-informed decisions to optimize their pipeline infrastructure for safe and efficient operations.