Today marks the second day of the Nord Stream 1 being down for maintenance. Russia let everyone know ahead of time that it would be down from July 11 to July 22, but what exactly does pipeline maintenance entail? Dozens of countries have thousands of miles of infrastructure sprawling across the globe, and ensuring the pipeline operates correctly is not only important for the environment, but for the safety of everyone involved. This article will explore failure modes, maintencen frequency, and other aspects of making sure these fluid highways are function properly.
Preventative measures are taken before the pipeline is even in construction. When laying a new line, it is important to conduct right-of-way clearing. This ensures there are no trees, roots, or debris along the path of the pipeline that will develop into a threat. A simple root could eventually introduce new stresses that allow a pipeline to rupture, so trees are cleared. These paths are similar to the cutouts for powerlines that run through a forest. The pipeline will also endure a series of hydrostatic tests before a drop of oil is allowed through it. These tests ensure that all components within the line are operating appropriately to stresses that they might encounter. Should a leak be detected, the ensuing “spill” will be a bit of water rather than any hydrocarbons. Only after a pipeline passes all these tests is it allowed to operate.
Once a pipeline is in operation, there are federal and state laws are regulations that must be followed (Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act of 1979, Code of Federal Regulations Part 195, state certifications, etc). All of these groups and rules help to guide operators in constructing their own organizational processes and methods for pipeline maintenance. These involve
- Risk assessments (special plans for high-consequence areas)
- In-line inspection with smart-pigs
- Bi-weekly inspections from the air
- Chemical anti-corrosive programs
- Remote leak detection
- Coordinating with 3rd party damage prevention programs
- In house R&D
As you can see, there are many ways to monitor and mitigate accidents within a pipeline. This allows pipelines to be one of the safest and most effective methods of energy distribution.
While dozens of modes of failure exist ranging from natural force damage to weld failures, almost all pipeline incidents relate to corrosion in some shape or form. Corrosion weakens the pipeline and paves the ways for catastrophic damage if not properly addressed. Corrosion can be countered through a number of methods.
- Material selection – Certain materials will be more prone to oxidation depending on the contents they will be transporting
- Protective coatings – A physical barrier to oxidation that may need replaced
- Cathodic protection systems – Making use of a sacrificial metal with an electric potential more conducive to corrosion than the pipeline itself
- Corrosion inhibitors – Additives that arrest the chemical reaction causing the corrosion
- Line cleaning – Removing water or other common contaminants that may accumulate in the line
When properly mitigated, an operator can deliver millions of barrels of oil in the pipeline’s lifetime with minimal incidents. If inappropriately managed, the outcomes can be disastrous much like Energy Transfer’s recent incident in Houston.
The cause of this particular accident is still being investigated, but the rupture resulted in a 2 hour fire. Energy Transfer was immediately able to detect the accident and isolated this section of line and flooded it with nitrogen. This allows hydrocarbons to burn off and the nitrogen arrests any remaining combustion as it cleans out the line. Because of Energy Transfer’s preparedness they were able to arrest the fire without anyone being injured. The pipeline will be repaired, the surrounding area will be remediated, and the public will again receive resources from this pipeline.
Pipeline safety doesn’t lie in the hands of operators alone. There are dozens of professional societies concerned with engineering and operating the safest and least accident prone pipelines. These are engineers that truly care for the environment who look to break down the mutually exclusive barrier between energy consumption and environmental mindfulness. The US Department of Transportation (DoT) has the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The PHMSA is responsible for developing and enforcing regulations, and logging all reportable pipeline incidents. The Association of Oil Pipe Lines (AOPL) is an independent associations of experienced staff who advocate for responsible economic and commercial policies at the FERC and Congress. Even the American Petroleum Institute (API) work with independent companies to craft educational materials which inform the public just how safe and rigorously tested modern pipeline infrastructure has become. It is clear enough stakeholders are effected that these organizations are able to justify their existence as we balance the interests of energy, environment, and economy.
Pipelines hold a nasty reputation thanks to years of misinformation released to scare consumers. Regular maintenance is totally normal and required for safe operation. Pipelines are one of the safest methods of hydrocarbon delivery, and the technology is only improving.
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