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Active pipeline monitoring: A case for fibre optics in new facility permitting

For many pipeline operators, especially those contemplating new facilities, the landscape has changed, with society and local communities becoming less tolerant of the development of new pipelines projects and infrastructure.  The media is rife with such reports, examples include the Southeast Market Pipelines Project, a natural gas pipeline project rejected by an appeals court, citing concerns about its impact on climate change.  In this instance, the D.C. Circuit vacated the FERC's (US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) earlier approval of the projects, ruling the agency must issue a new supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) that considers greenhouse gas emissions. Subsequently, the FERC, reinstated its approval, yet controversy remains.

The Canadian Northern Gateway pipeline project serves as another conspicuous example. Here, a 525,000-barrels/day petroleum export pipeline proposal connecting Edmonton, Alberta to Kitimat on the north-central coast of British Columbia, was rejected by Canada’s National Energy Board in a bid to “balance environmental and economic promises,” despite many indigenous communities in northern British Columbia, who would also be impacted by the pipeline, supporting it.  In support for its decision to reject the bid, the NEB cited both a lack of consultation with First Nations and a failure to adequately address concerns raised during testimony from First Nations over pipeline ruptures and oil spills.  This despite the project having set aside approximately $2 Billion Canadian Dollars in business and employment opportunities to aboriginal communities, in a region where few such opportunities exist for the members of these communities. 

Delays and cancellations to numerous other projects that would otherwise provide access to one of the largest natural gas shale plays in the United States, the Marcellus, loom large as well.  Perhaps the two most notable being Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct and the Spectra Energy (now Enbridge) Access Northeast projects.  Both were cancelled, resulting the New England region of the U.S. having some of the highest energy costs in the U.S.

Despite being thwarted by reluctant regulators and vocal NGO opposition, these projects in sum represent both sound business and responsible strategic infrastructure planning and are supported by both abundant supply and growing demand.  Energy costs in the regions to have been served by these projects are consistently some of the highest in the U.S. Leveraging new technologies like fibre optic based active pipeline monitoring allows the dialogue around the well-intended concern for the wellbeing of people and environment to progress armed with information that can drive more effective decisions that both respect these concerns and acknowledge the need for growth.

From a permitting standpoint, once a need for a new pipeline is established, the routing is most important.  The impact on the local environment, culture, and community must be determined and weighed against the benefits of the project to the general good of the public.  It has always been the position of industry that the design and engineering of the facility are done to all applicable codes, standards, and regulations, as well as routed to minimise impacts to environment and community.  One would expect the rigor involved in this process to be sufficient and from a regulatory standpoint, it is.  However, from the perspective of those living in the vicinity of the facility or those NGOs who advocate for the environment, satisfying applicable regulatory requirements is frequently not enough.   The proposed pipeline crossing of an aquifer, through a community, near a school, historic site, across native lands, or a wild and scenic river soon becomes the rallying issue and the start of costly delay in permitting.  The costs quickly escalate and the longer the debate rages, the more attention is brought to the issue. Those opposed know that they can force delay that may make the project economically unfeasible. 

There is no panacea, but there are certainly opportunities to mitigate these risks by addressing the fears of the public up front. What we know from experience is that most of these fears are rooted in the prospect and consequences of a potential of failure of the pipeline. This is where fibre optic monitoring creates a unique opportunity to serve all interested parties. A properly designed fibre monitoring system can provide that additional layer of confidence most reasonable people would require to address the “what if’s” associated with a potential breach of the line. Such a system can alarm the operator of unauthorized digging, washouts, ground movement, progression of known structural issues, and even identify potential for leaks before they happen.  With certain applications, it can measure stress directly to the pipeline such as may occur with ground movement, repetitive loading or overburden. From these measurements, and proper analytics, maintenance activities can be scheduled and chances of failure can be predicted; minimising operational and financial impact to the operator as well as avoiding entirely a hazard to the public.    

The use of fibre optics for monitoring systems is not new. Particularly in regions where fibre optic lines are installed during initial construction for pipeline SCADA, distributed sensing fibre optic technology has been in use for a number of years to monitor for third party damage, seismic activity and potentially even leaks. Essentially, such fibre lines run along the pipeline and through interrogating differences in the light impulse sequences, disturbances along the route can be identified. However, like any technology, there are limits to what it can achieve.  Probably the most significant of these limitations relates to the placement of the fibre relative to the pipeline. The fibre only reacts to the environment specific to its location.  In other words, fibre running along a pipeline, but at 18 inches away will only react to forces that are specific to that location or are large enough to affect that location.  While in many instances that is enough, such as significant ground movement or digging activity, when we think about monitoring a pipeline holistically, a more robust approach should be considered.

These distributed technologies such as Distributed Acoustics (DAS), Distributed Temperature (DTS), and Distributed Strain (DSS) do not indicate what is happening to the pipe directly but rather monitor more indirect environmental parameters around the pipe.  In contrast, LR's SmartSleeve relies on point sensing based fibre optic technology that can, in instances where distributed fibre technologies are already deployed, literally piggyback on these lines and allow for a more holistic approach to pipeline monitoring.

This data can also be fed into operators’ existing GIS platforms to facilitate a full spatial analysis as part of a more comprehensive risk based assessment of the proposed route(s).  Knowing where the potential risks, such as mining or long term construction activities, active seismic or unstable geologic conditions, sink holes, river or tidal areas prone to erosion, along with how other sensitive areas might be affected by a pipeline failure, reside relative to planned routing would provide an optimal basis of the analysis.  From there, determinations can be made about what type of solution would best address the risk factor.  In some instances a fibre monitoring solution running along and in close proximity to the pipe in a certain area will address the specific hazard.  In many instances however such as where the pipe might be subject to repetitive loading or slow movement of the ground around the pipeline, the direct application of fibre monitoring to the pipe itself is required.  Such an application provides real time data on how the pipe itself is being affected by its surrounding environment and allows an operator to make adjustments in its operation to prevent a pipe failure and maximize operating pressure.

Having fibre optic technology, either by direct application to the pipe itself or proximate to the pipe provides additional data points about the pipeline and its integrity. It provides the regulators and public the peace of mind that the proposed pipeline will be setting a new standard in pipeline safety.  As an operator proposes a new facility, monitoring capabilities such as fibre optics provide that extra layer of care, providing the confidence to the public that the pipeline is not a threat to their community or environment.

Maintaining a pipeline of profitability is a click away

A first of its kind system, SmartSleeve uses a combination of non-welded sleeve(s) embedded with fiber optic sensing technology and data analytics to provide operators true around the clock real time visibility into the condition of their pipeline assets. Because SmartSleeve is available in both repair and structurally passive composite variants it can accurately monitor the health of pipeline repair locations as well as otherwise healthy pipe where either geotechnical or other technical risk factors may be present. Further, SmartSleeve monitoring technology also provides insight into general operating conditions to ensure optimal pressure management and leak mitigation decision making. It can be quickly applied during initial pipeline installation as part of an integrated monitoring plan or deployed after a pipe has gone into service, as the environment around the pipe changes or to monitor anomalies on an aging asset.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the system creates an opportunity for all stakeholders, both public and private, to more cooperatively manage their mutual obligation to protect the environments and communities along the pipeline right-of-way with the need to maintain and grow energy throughput capacity. Request a demo here.

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