How Do Operators Keep Pipelines Safe?

pipeline control room 

Pipelines are constructed with safety in mind, using best practices in anti-corrosion coatings and pipe materials, use of shutoff valves, and a comprehensive series of construction regulations. Every pipeline built today must pass a test of its construction and materials before it can begin operations. In this test, the pipeline is filled with water and subjected to pressures well above the maximum pressure at which it will be allowed to operate otherwise. PHMSA and state inspectors oversee major pipeline construction projects.

Pipelines undergo regular inspection and maintenance, including a major program known as integrity management intended to identify and treat symptoms long before they become a problem. Operators assess the attributes of a pipeline through a variety of inspection techniques. The primary inspection method is in-line inspection, in which high-tech devices travel inside the pipeline. Referred to as “smart pigs”, these high-tech diagnostic devices produce information about features in a pipeline. Pipeline operators conduct a physical evaluation of a segment of the tested pipeline in order to validate the results of the test, and use analytic software to review results and isolate potential issues for maintenance. Operators then decide which pipeline features identified by the test should be addressed by physical inspection, based on federal regulations and a prioritization of the greatest risks. Not all of the features identified by inspections need to be repaired.

While in-line inspection technology has improved dramatically over the past few decades, pipeline operators want further improvements. As one “smart pig” vendor described, today’s tools may have a 90 percent detection rate. Pipeline operators tell “smart pig” companies about their needs, push these vendors to improve the technology, develop analytic tools to use when reviewing “smart pig inspection” reports, discuss with other companies best practices in integrating inspection data, and contribute millions of dollars each year into pipeline consortium work on shared pipeline technology goals.

Most pipelines are continuously managed by control room operators reviewing information from a sophisticated series of instruments along the length of the pipeline. Using these systems, pipeline controllers can monitor changes in line pressure and flow rate and other inconsistencies, which might indicate a rupture. Control room operators are highly qualified and regularly trained to identify a potential incident and shut down the pipeline during a suspected release to reduce size of a spill. To do so, controllers stop pumps that push liquids through a pipeline and close valves to isolate a pipeline segment. Pipelines are also monitored by foot patrols, aerial patrols, and the local community.

When a pipeline release occurs, pipeline operators work with first responders and local officials to protect people and the environment, and clean up. Pipeline operators develop emergency response plans to prepare for pipeline releases and conduct drills to be ready. Operators maintain regular contact with fire departments and other emergency response organizations along a pipeline’s length to discuss the resources and approaches to be used.  

Finally, pipeline operators work to build public awareness of a pipeline along its route, including by contacting the nearest landowners and residents. Operators want the public to know how to contact emergency officials and act safely during a possible release, and prevent pipeline damage caused by a third party excavator.