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Will leak detection end the oil pipeline impasse?

Adrian Banica, founder and CEO of Synodon, a company that builds systems to detect pipeline leaks, discusses how remote sensing technology can find little pipeline leaks before they become big leaks, in an interview with OilPrice.com.

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Adrian Banica: Yes. The core offering is the technology we developed for natural gas and liquid hydrocarbon leak detection, but there is a basket of services designed to reduce the overall costs for our clients. During our leak detection surveys, we collect a lot of different types of data such as visual images, thermal images and very, very accurate GPS information. We’ve repackaged all those data sets into new value-added products. We can provide these extra services without incurring additional costs.

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For instance, we could offer some of those services for new construction, in which case it would speed up the process of getting all the information required for the necessary regulatory filings.

The most important thing, as I mentioned earlier, is trying to find small leaks before they become large leaks. All our services and all the data we provide are geared towards preventative maintenance. We sought to add services beyond leak protection because all pipeline operators still need to get their other data sets from somewhere. We are consolidating everything they need in a very cost effective and efficient manner.

James Stafford: A late-2012 study on leak detection by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has brought this subject to the forefront. Dr. David Shaw, one of the report’s authors, says that pipeline leaks, ruptures, and spill are “systematically causing more and more property damage…in bad years you have $5 billion in damages due to pipeline-related accidents”. The logic of the study is that pipleline operators could be spending 10 times more on leak detection given what kind of damages they are being awarded now. 

Adrian Banica: Yes, the study makes the most valid point here, and that is that leak detection systems represent a bottom line savings, not an expense. For instance, Dr. Shaw has pointed out that pipeline companies would likely be justified in spending $10 million per year for every 400 miles of pipelines because they are already spending more than that on public property damage. 

We have demonstrated that we can detect a leak that is less than 1 liter/min or 380 gallons/day. If our technology was deployed every 30 days and the leak were to happen in the middle of this period (on average), the total spill would be 5,700 gallons (380x15 days), which is 50 times smaller than the standard technology daily leak rate. That’s a huge difference.

Another difference is that pipeline operators pay around $12 per hour to have personnel walk the pipeline, and they can only catch leaks that are close enough for them to see.

James Stafford: Could leak detection systems also save lives?

Adrian Banica: Yes. The PHMSA study points out that 44% of these old hazardous liquid pipelines are in High Consequence Areas (HCAs)—which means that peoples’ lives are at risk if they blow up. We’re talking about 44% of over 170,000 miles of these pipelines. On a public platform, this alone should lend a new urgency to the leak detection debate. The point is that remote—or external—sensors can head off a dangerous leak faster than an internal system.

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