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How do you spot a leaking oil pipeline?

Pipeline leaks, ruptures, and spills are increasingly causing property damage, according to a new study, and detection systems to detect pipeline leaks may be lacking.

By Keith SchaeferGuest blogger / February 2, 2013

Miles of pipe intended to be used in construction of the Keystone Pipeline are stacked in a field near Ripley, Okla. Leak detection technology around pipelines is not modern, scientific or technical, Schaefer writes.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File

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Do you know how most leaks are found on oil and gas pipelines?

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They get a shrill complaint over the phone from one of the landowners where the pipeline crosses.

It’s true, says Dr. David Shaw, one of the authors of a draft “Leak Detection Study” prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation, for a report that will go to the US Congress early in 2013. Dr. Shaw is a project engineer with independent consulting firm Kiefner & Associates, Inc., a high-end, Ohio-based consulting firm that specializes in pipeline engineering.

The Study – commissioned and funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) – analyzed several leak detection systems. What the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is to airlines, for example, PHMSA is to the pipeline industry. 

“Very often pipeline operators haven’t known they have a leak until they get a phone call from somebody saying there’s oil in my field,” Dr. Shaw said in a recent interview with the Oil and Gas Investments Bulletin.

The PHMSA was first founded in 2001 as a result of several large pipeline spills, and their report only goes to Congress every few years. And now is a time when more pipelines are needed than ever before to transport the huge new supply of shale oil, and Canadian heavy oil, through the continent.

Of course, that has brought more public scrutiny to the industry than ever before—making it a high-stakes report for the industry. Surprisingly, the mainstream media has almost completely ignored the 269-page draft report, which was released in late September.

(And of course, the trade magazines don’t cover this issue because that would bite the hand the feeds them—you can’t annoy your advertisers!)

You can access the draft report here: https://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/meetings/FilGet.mtg?fil=397. The public and industry had eight weeks to comment on it. Those comments will now be worked into the final PHMSA report that goes to Congress.

Shaw says there is relatively little market penetration of automated leak detection systems. It’s still being done semi-manually, through periodic monitoring of pressure and flow by operators.

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