Transporting oil via pipeline is a risky business, especially if you’re doing it underwater. But one company is putting technology to use that it says could end up making the process a lot safer.
Norway-based research company SINTEF is working to complete tests on its SmartPipe pipeline, which uses sensors and a wireless system to transmit data on the pipeline’s health to those monitoring the pipeline. Ole Øystein Knudsen, Project Manager for the SmartPipe research, has been working to finalize the technology for the pipeline since 2003. He told ThinkProgress in an email that the sensors embedded into the pipeline — which keep track of the thickness, tension, vibration and temperature of the pipeline — aren’t new, but the wireless system to constantly transmit the data to shore is something that hasn’t been used in pipelines before.
Offshore pipelines are currently spilling at a much higher rate than in previous years. The number of annual spills from offshore pipelines and oil rigs surged between 2000 and 2009 — from about four spills per year in the 1970s through 1990s to more than 17 between 2000 and 2009.
Knudsen thinks those spills could be reduced by more frequent monitoring. Right now, Knudsen said, pipeline companies use a few sensors to monitor pipeline health as well as an operation called “pigging,” in which a tool is inserted into the pipe to measure the thickness of the walls and make note of weak spots. That process is expensive, and is only done once every few years — meaning that if the pipeline starts corroding soon after one inspection, it might take years to be discovered.
With SINTEF’s system, “the operator will be in much more control regarding the actual condition of the pipeline,” he said. Having real-time information on a pipeline’s condition could also help prevent spills, since any sort of corrosion or degradation can be discovered and remedied early on.
The SmartPipe system was created for offshore pipelines, which face particular challenges in transmitting data long distances to shore, but Knudsen said that the system likely could be used in land pipelines too. External corrosion — the wearing down of the pipeline from the outside-in — poses more of a risk to pipelines onshore than offshore, however, so Knudsen said that the SmartPipe technology would have to include a sensor for measuring external corrosion if it were to be used in land pipelines.
Land pipelines could use better technology to detect degradation or leaks. According to a 2014 Wall Street Journal review of Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data on pipeline incidents in the U.S., residents or company employees were nearly three times as likely to detect a leak in a pipeline than pipeline technology was. In fact, according to the review, leak-detection software, alarms and 24/7 monitoring only discovered leaks in pipelines 19.5 percent of the time. That was true of a 2013 spill in North Dakota, in which 20,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into wheat field for 11 days until a farmer — rather than a detection monitoring system — discovered it.
Because multiple oil companies have sponsored SmartPipe’s development, Knudsen is confident they’re interested in adopting the technology. Though since it will increase the cost of the pipeline, he said he thinks they’ll install it on more risk-prone pipelines, such as those running through deep water.
“But this is a potential game changer to the industry and the way pipelines are operated, so it may be taken in use on a wider scale also,” he said. “We think there is a significant market for this.”
Even when better technology is available, pipeline companies don’t always use it. TransCanada, for instance, won’t be using the most advanced leak technology in its Keystone XL pipeline, InsideClimate News reported in 2012.