Low orbit satellite monitoring offers another level of right-of-way security to pipeline operators.
This article appears in the October issue issue of Oilweek
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
The single most common cause of pipeline failure is mechanical damage from third-party contractors encroaching on pipeline rights-of-way. According to the US-based Pipeline Research Council International, this is certainly the case in America – “and this picture is repeated in many other countries throughout the world.”
To illustrate the nature and extent of this problem, consider a recent natural-gas pipeline explosion outside a town in northern Texas. It killed one person, injured several others and sent flames high into the air. The dead and injured were employees of a contractor replacing power-line poles when they hit the pipeline. These victims didn’t even know they were working in a pipeline right-of-way.
To actively prevent this kind of pipeline damage, operators have to look high – a lot higher, according to Moness Rizkalla. Increasingly, he says, pipeline companies should be looking to the dozen or so radar satellites among the roughly 13,000 space vehicles now circling the earth.
A long-time pipeline integrity specialist, Rizkalla is president of Visitless Integrity Assessment (VIA). So far, his clients have included El Paso Corporation, Sempra Energy, General Electric, the Virginia Utility Protection Service and Alliance Pipeline. VIA uses satellites to track areas of pipeline risk, Reflecting levels of increasing urgency, the company gives its customers “notices, alerts and alarms” if their lines are in peril because of men and machines.
“When damage is caused by (this kind of) third-party encroachment,” Rizkalla deadpanned, “it isn’t the operator’s fault but it sure is the operator’s problem.” He reached for his notes. “Seventy-five per cent of online pipeline ruptures are caused by third parties, and 90% of those failures occur immediately upon contact with the line. And about 70% of those incidents involve unauthorized encroachment taking place without any contact being made with the local one-call organizations. Sixty-five per cent occur on pipelines where signage exists.”
The costs of third-party damage can be immense. Apart from fatalities and injuries to workers, there are other public safety implications. Canada’s single worst episode – it occurred in 1979 – illustrates the safety issue well. A heavy-equipment operator ruptured a major propane pipeline. The product exploded, nearly killing the worker, who suffered third-degree burns over most of his body. In what was then Canada’s biggest-ever peacetime evacuation, more than 19,000 people were ordered from the suburban Edmonton neighbourhood – Millwoods by name – where the disaster occurred.
The non-safety issues can also be huge. Rizkalla ticked them off on the fingers of one hand: The cost of repairing damage so you can resume pipeline service can be huge. If the product ignites “there could be an ignition dimension,” which can lead to property and environmental damage. Lost product – usually small amounts, but sometimes large – means lost income and the time and expense of recovery. Delayed delivery could lead to contractual problems and possible lawsuits. Then there are the corporate image and public relations impacts, which can take the form of lower stock prices and penalties from regulators.
Three decades on, it is obvious that Alberta ultimately benefited from the Millwoods calamity. In response a consortium of municipalities, utilities and private sector companies created the Alberta One-call Corporation. Best known for the tagline “Call before you dig,” the corporation now receives around 400,000 calls per year asking for utility locations from individual homeowners, contractors and corporations wanting the safety, savings and convenience of a less complicated operation.
One-call and utility companies try to prevent all potential problems. Alliance Pipeline, for example, asks people to call before they do deep ploughing; install drain tiles; construct fences or driveways; or even plant a tree.
One-call systems are an excellent first line of defense, but they represent passive prevention. As long as people wanting to dig make the call, public safety is the winner, and companies don’t have to be proactive. The drawback to this model, of course, is that right-of-way infringement still exists, so there is a need for operators to actively pursue pipeline integrity.
A fervent advocate of pipeline monitoring (“a step improvement to traditional company monitoring”), Rizkalla described the system as “a peerless form” of active prevention. A pilot study by the Virginia Utility Protection Service confirmed that satellite-based monitoring can contribute significantly to pipeline protection within a jurisdiction that already has a one-call service.
Relative to the communities where we live, even low-orbit satellites are about the highest technology to have a major impact on our daily lives. By buying services from Canada’s two low-orbit Radarsat satellites, VIA uses right-of-way snooping to guard against damage from third-party encroachment. The satellites are owned and operated MacDonald Dettwiler, an aerospace company based in Richmond, B.C.
Other countries have developed similar SAR (synthetic aperture radar) technology – notably Italy, an Anglo-German consortium and Japan – but “Canadians should be very proud that we are a world leader in it.” These systems are not for communications but for earth observation. They are like good cameras in the sky – but, because they are based on radar, cameras that are effective despite cloud, fog and smog.
The VIA system is based on satellite images of contracted sections of pipeline right-of-way. Properly analysed, Radarsat images can reveal whether the right-of-way contains vehicles that are not supposed to be there. By identifying big hunks of metal – generally heavy construction equipment, including pickup trucks, backhoes and bobcats – that have suddenly appeared on a client’s right-of-way, VIA can establish that mechanized activity is taking place, and by comparing images, create a simple record of what took place over what period of time.
“From the satellite you can accumulate a series of images of what’s been going on there. And then, through computerized change detection software, you can work out the history,” according to Rizkalla.”If you subtract one image from the other, you can identify a target – something metallic which is simply not supposed to be there. Moreover, you can detect the precise location of the target. You can do all of this from GIS layers.”
“The operator knows where the risks are,” he added, “and they go out and check. Sometimes it ends up to be a false alarm. However, false alarms are less than 10%. Detection accuracy is greater than 80%, and we can prepare reports within three hours of image acquisition. It’s a near-real-time detection scenario.” As part of the process, pipeline integrity wonks compare identified encroachment incidents with service tickets that have been issued by the area’s one-call service. Those that can’t be unaccounted for are the subject of immediate investigation.
Potentially, satellite monitoring provides a valuable contribution to the risk management toolbox. “The big pipeline operators are becoming very sophisticated at risk management, and this is a risk mitigation technology which needs to be deployed in high-risk areas,” according to Rizkalla. “One of the areas that we (as a business) are finding to be particularly high-value is in the outskirts of big cities where there is a great deal of construction activity going on – where there are known areas of major development.” Prices go up with greater surveillance, but the more satellites you use the more detailed the coverage you get.
While VIA’s main focus is to help reduce risk from third-party intrusion, the company has also identified the mitigation of geohazard risk as a business opportunity. In this case, geohazard refers to ground movement as subtle as the shift of soil from winter-freeze-up. Over time, these movements can cause damage to underground pipe and even surface equipment.
The word “geohazard” normally refers to phenomena in the physical environment such as earthquakes, landslides, floods or volcanic eruption that can occur naturally and can threaten artificial structures. In the context of pipelines, however, the term refers to a wide range of environmental loads and effects, some of which are actually triggered by pipeline installation or operations. Some 35 years ago, an Alaska Pipeline task force defined geohazards as “natural hazards of a geotechnical, geological, hydrological, or tectonic origin that represent potential threats to the pipeline, right-of-way and/or ditch, including hazards induced by pipeline installation and/or operation.”
You can often anticipate emerging geohazards through ground movement monitoring, and VIA says satellite tracking can sometimes be a viable competitor. To monitor ground stability, you need to tag key pieces of equipment with markers or transponders that the satellite can identify. As the satellite passes over the area, every 15 to 30 days it takes images of the markers. Automated systems then compare the target images for ground stability.
However, the use of slope indicators for geohazard measurement has “been around for many, many years,” according to Rizkalla, so doing the same thing by satellite “really is a price play.” The use of satellites to measure ground stability can be cost-effective for operators, but mostly in areas like Swan Hills, the Peace country and the Fort McMurray region, where they can monitor many pieces of pipe and equipment with a single flyover. “The more innovative product, which I believe is going to be a step-change worldwide, is the monitoring of third-party encroachment. Protection against third-party encroachment is the real innovation we are taking to market.”