Pipelines and humans

Feb. 5, 2018
Worldwide construction of hydrocarbon pipelines will be occurring at breakneck pace in 2018, led in large part by global demand for natural gas and the desire of producers in the US to meet as much of this demand as possible.

Worldwide construction of hydrocarbon pipelines will be occurring at breakneck pace in 2018, led in large part by global demand for natural gas and the desire of producers in the US to meet as much of this demand as possible. At the same time, crude produced in the US is poised to replace Russian-sourced barrels as the single largest supply of oil available. Details regarding the pipeline construction needed to meet these changing market dynamics are included in this issue as part of Oil & Gas Journal’s annual Worldwide Pipeline Construction special report (p. 72).

Getting US-produced gas to consuming centers in the country’s Northeast, however, continues to inspire both demand for new pipeline construction and opposition to the same. Much the same could be said for new crude oil pipelines regardless of where in the country they’re proposed to be built, opposition meeting each new proposal nearly as soon as it’s made.

Pipeline operators and contractors haven’t done themselves many favors lately regarding the bases for public concern. TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone pipeline in November 2017 spilled roughly 5,000 bbl of crude oil in South Dakota mere days before Nebraska officials were set to decide whether to approve new routing through the state for the pipeline’s Keystone XL expansion. Nebraska approved the modified route but was sued by property owners almost immediately after doing so.

Problems at Keystone followed an October 2017 spill of about 16,000 bbl in the Gulf of Mexico from a leaking LLOG Exploration Offshore pipeline 40 miles southeast of Venice, La., and a smaller spill that summer in Bastrop County, Tex., from Magellan Midstream Partners LP’s Longhorn pipeline, which forced evacuation of local residents.

Serious pipeline incidents recorded by the US Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reached 37 in 2016, the highest level since 46 in 2009. It was also the third straight year that the number of serious incidents increased, after reaching a low of 24 in 2013. Serious incidents are those including a fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization.

Keystone crosshairs

The Keystone spill was the most recent and highest-profile US pipeline failure. But that’s not all that makes it unique.

Keystone is a new system, built using modern materials and techniques and entering service in 2010. Pipeline operators legitimately have met complaints about proposals for new systems by assuring the public that new materials and techniques would help mitigate problems experienced on older lines. To the degree the legitimacy of such statements is eroded, both the US energy industry and the public at large will suffer.

Pipeline service companies and pipe manufacturers both continue to work with operators to ensure the safety of their joint enterprise. Intertek Group PLC, for example, just last month introduced what it describes as a “unique pipeline quality verification solution.” Its system combines pipe tracking with inspection during manufacturing, creating a traceable, searchable record of pipe data that can then be applied to future inspection, inventory, and operating needs.

And though continued technological process if both needed and welcome, even the best mousetraps are only as good as the people operating them. Or the people who installed them. Or the people who maintain them.

The human factor remains the crucial variable. And it is up to each pipe maker, each welding company, each inspection contractor, each operator to make sure their people are conducting their day-to-day activities at the highest level possible. We’re probably never going to build a gizmo that makes it otherwise.