Future of oil pipelines

 By Chris Dalby

Oil pipelines are the unsung heroes of the oil and gas industry. Often decades old, they have survived in much the same way through rust, natural disasters, leaks and theft. However, besides advances in safety standards and construction materials, pipelines have largely remained the same. This has led to discoveries including failing leak systems, spills that go undetected and persistent land use difficulties…

Two recent examples stand out in particular. First, the recent protests at Standing Rock, South Dakota, show the level of environmental concern and public fury that pipelines can provoke. Second, President Obama recently nixed the controversial Keystone XL project, which would transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Illinois and Texas, although Donald Trump decided to reactivate it. This opposition to pipelines leaves governments and energy companies in a quandary. Over the medium and long-term, a desire to move away from hydrocarbons is becoming increasingly evident. However, for now, oil and gas are still how we power cars, cities and industry. Pipelines are the only way to transport these goods.

Nevertheless, concerns are very understandable. In 2014, it was estimated that 45 percent of America’s pipeline network is over 50 years old. Since most pipelines are designed to have a lifespan of 20-30 years, this creaking realization is more than a little worrying. An important re-education program is needed to ensure that new technologies, coupled with tight regulations, can make pipelines safe. Indeed, several technological advances may transform the way companies build and use pipelines.

Graphene for pipelines could provide one solution. Since graphene, a one-atom thick slice of carbon, was discovered and won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics, it has been hailed as a miracle material.Potential applications have ranged from removing radioactive materials from contaminated water, building pressure sensors, or creating advanced transistors.

Graphene for pipelines could provide one solution

As pioneered by British company, Haydale Composite Solutions (HCS), graphene can also be added to the pipeline manufacturing process, increasing their resistance to leaks and bolstering toughness. HCS has opened a research center in Wales to test out their newly designed pipes, leading to successful results, first industry contacts and additional research into new materials.

Speaking in August 2016, Gerry Boyce, Managing Director of HCS said that “We see a wide range of benefits in utilizing graphene-enhanced polymers for oil and gas pipeline systems, including improved strength, stiffness and toughness, increased permeation resistance and enhanced fatigue performance. We can quantify these benefits through the use of this test facility, which will lead to customers having access to graphene-enhanced composite pipelines with improved performance and lower cost.”

HCS’ technological developments represent a significant opportunity. Given the awareness of graphene, re-orienting public attention toward the its applications for pipelines would go a long way. Across the pond, efforts are underway to increase pipeline life expectancy. Companies such as Kinder Morgan are working on increasing this expectancy for pipelines far beyond the current average of 20 years. Via cathodic protection, or a high-performance coating applied to the exterior of the pipe, pipelines can increase their resistance, especially to water contamination and soil stress, two of the major risks for underground pipelines.

This raises another threat to the public perception of pipelines: anger at companies implicated in environmental contaminations or regulatory violations which extends to a mistrust of pipeline technology itself. However, if maintained properly, the chances of leaks from latest-generation pipelines are very small. Even before HCS’ graphene innovations are rolled out, special polymer coatings are in place to prevent corrosion and abrasion to pipelines throughout their operational lifespan.

Matt Alliston, vice-president of domestic markets with Specialty Polymer Coatings, pointed out that “easy-to-apply epoxy mainline and girth-weld coatings have dramatically increased a pipeline’s ability to maintain its integrity.” Furthermore, to address the rough terrain and long stretches over which pipeline networks run, companies are making advances to ensure the application of these coatings is done automatically. Alliston explained that the use of automated mechanical-application equipment is allowing for a “consistent, repeatable and reliable protective field weld coating process.”

While reassuring, the risk for accidents is not zero, and the stand-off at Standing Rock was due to the proposed Dakota Access pipeline crossing environmentally sensitive areas and traditional Sioux burial sites. Geographic information systems (GIS) are already a mainstay of pipeline planning but its broader application could avoid such controversies in future, by ensuring, to the fullest possible extent, that pipelines wind their way across the most ecologically and socially friendly route.

GIS already offers a range of applications, including geographical data, and infrastructure and emergency response information. Companies like ILF Consultants also include landowner data and indigenous communities along planned routes. Energy firms are aware that not taking these considerations on board may prove costly. Beyond the PR difficulties created by protests such as Standing Rock, deploying these technologies and taking full use of their advantages makes fiscal sense.

Man at work on a pipeline

Updating the entire network would certainly cost a great deal but would generate colossal savings over decades to come. In 2015, as more and more reports surfaced about the risks of aging pipelines, President Obama proposed a $3.5 billion plan to renew gas pipelines, an encouraging but unambitious move. The accompanying government report estimated it would cost $270 billion to overhaul every aspect of the network.

Donald Trump has pledged to spend on infrastructure but has seemed to focus more on airports and highways instead of the unseen core of America’s energy system. Given the technologies listed above, there are more and more opportunities to renew pipelines, while generating jobs and protecting the environment.

SEE MORE: Virtual pipelines by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.