"Pigs" not always smart enough to spot pipeline cracks

U.S. pipeline operators have a problem - finding cracks before they rupture and turn into oil spills.

The "number one asset," a torpedo-like robot called a "smart pig," can't always spot the fissures, or the data collected can take months to analyze.

A case in point came when Exxon Mobil (XOM) inspected a pipeline in Arkansas in February using a smart pig, only for the line to split open a month later and spill 5,000 barrels of crude. The device didn't find the minute cracks along the seam of the pipe that caused the burst.

The boom in U.S. oil output is straining the country's 184,000 miles of pipeline, with the volume of spillages jumping by 77% so far this year to 93,000 barrels.

Companies affected include EEQ, EEP, BKEP, MWE, KMR, KMP, SXE, EPD, PAA MMP, HEP and PSXP.

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Comments (15)
  • Dividends#1
    , contributor
    Comments (4332) | Send Message
    I am not a pig, I am a BULL. Bullish KMR!!!


    18 Aug 2013, 08:48 AM Reply Like
  • richjoy403
    , contributor
    Comments (13914) | Send Message
    The XOM experience is troubling. Obviously the smart pigs are not smart enough.


    Can they be made smarter enough to do the job for which they are designed...to locate and communicate defects before they become local environmental disasters, pipeline shutdowns, and expensive cleanup operations?
    18 Aug 2013, 11:11 AM Reply Like
  • chilidog17
    , contributor
    Comments (152) | Send Message
    The pigs are smart enough if you use the correct technology to assess your threat. For cracks, you almost always have to use an ultrasonic smart pig. Then sit back and wait 6 months to get the data back from the vendor. XOM was on the right track but even the simplest corrosion detection technology, axial MFL, wouldn't have returned you data in less than a month.
    19 Aug 2013, 10:06 AM Reply Like
  • swiver
    , contributor
    Comments (59) | Send Message
    I have followed this industry since I came into nondestructive testing in 1978. There is a good paper in the annals of the American Society for Nondestructive testing (ASNT) on pipeline inspection, in which the MFL technique missed small holes in a line in Alaska that we think was caused by bacterial corrosion, while ultrasound later found the holes.
    Line pipe when installed as pipeline is often not quite round, and it is often difficult to weld them together. The girth welds are only recently being inspected by advanced ultrasonic techniques, which is slowly replacing radiography. But if the pipe isnt round, interpreting the results is difficult. It is also very difficult to inspect these girth welds from the ID when the pipeline is in service.
    Some pipelines are uninspectable, because of right angled bends, etc. While more modern pipelines are laid to be inspectable, older ones might not have been so designed.
    Then there is the issue of using lower yield strength materials that dont meet the API requirement for the grade used. This issue has been discussed at API.
    Finally, as the remaining wall thickness is reduced by corrosion, the strength falls. Some pigs can not accurately measure the reduction in wall thickness, which is difficult to do. Pressure testing older corroded pipe can also cause further damage to the pipe wall.
    There is a detailed report "Records Management within the Gas Transmission Division of the PG&E company prior to the Natural Gas Transmission Pipeline Rupture and Fire, San Bruno, California, Sept 9, 2010" that you might find interesting....
    18 Aug 2013, 12:13 PM Reply Like
  • richjoy403
    , contributor
    Comments (13914) | Send Message
    Swiver -- Thank you.
    You seem to know a lot about the various pipe-related problems, and also about the pigs. I take it you are not aware of any solutions to significantly lessen the spills.
    18 Aug 2013, 01:12 PM Reply Like
  • aeroguy48
    , contributor
    Comments (906) | Send Message
    Isn't the pipeline 65 years old? What do you expect perfection in perpetuity ?
    18 Aug 2013, 01:13 PM Reply Like
  • richjoy403
    , contributor
    Comments (13914) | Send Message
    aeroguy -- The topic is the inspecting devices, and their inability to identify likely causes of spills...the question was can these smart pigs be made smart enough to do so?


    OTOH, some would simply throw up their hands and say, "what do you expect for a 65 year-old pipe?"
    18 Aug 2013, 01:18 PM Reply Like
  • Be Here Now
    , contributor
    Comments (6324) | Send Message
    Add KMI to the list.
    18 Aug 2013, 01:42 PM Reply Like
  • rdy4trvl
    , contributor
    Comments (31) | Send Message
    As the cost of these spills and cleanup increase, the inspection methods and tools will improve. It's important to keep in mind the alternatives (rail, truck) certainly don't have nearly the safety record of pipelines on a per unit basis. The tragic train accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec had 70+/- tankers of oil and killed 47.
    18 Aug 2013, 01:51 PM Reply Like
  • richjoy403
    , contributor
    Comments (13914) | Send Message
    rdy -- Agreed, and we might also see new regs.


    With respect to comparative accident costs, the loss of 47 lives in a single night gets a lot more attention than tanker highway accidents that claim 2 or 4 at a time.
    18 Aug 2013, 02:23 PM Reply Like
  • kmi
    , contributor
    Comments (4684) | Send Message
    $50,000 should fall well within the R&D budget of any major. Put up a public bounty on an improved PIG device (sort of how DARPA does it?) and see how quickly the solutions come flying in. For kids in SE Asia most likely since our kids here are more interested in design than function....
    18 Aug 2013, 03:07 PM Reply Like
  • richjoy403
    , contributor
    Comments (13914) | Send Message
    KMI -- I appreciate your suggestion, but $50k is likely not nearly enough to fund the technology required. I suspect ENB, XOM, BP, and others operating pipelines would very gladly pay $10s of millions each.
    18 Aug 2013, 03:30 PM Reply Like
  • Scooter-Pop
    , contributor
    Comments (4948) | Send Message
    Uh Oh,


    How did those welds pass the None Destructive Test "NDT", X-ray? You guessed it, payola to receive the film that promotes expedited construction. The Regulatory Bodies are asleep at the wheel. Get in the Inspection Truck and take a look.


    Integrity, what's that?


    Good film sells well, for a premium! A weak source helps too.


    Start with the inspector responsible for delegating the NDT inspection! They never want to talk to the RSO, just the salesman with CASH to get that 80 miles of 36". Corruption is Rampant in this space?


    You only see the bubbles in the Right-Of-Way when it rains.
    18 Aug 2013, 03:30 PM Reply Like
  • Scooter-Pop
    , contributor
    Comments (4948) | Send Message
    Questions and the Finger Pointing are common upon Catastrophic failure. I have too much experience in digging it up and spending four times as much doing it right, what didn't get done to start with.


    I have experience in relying on the First Responders after catastrophic failure, the Tremendous expense associated therewith, after the policy limits are reached. News Helicopters overhead, the elderly being evacuated, the claims...... Not a Company/MLP Maker!


    Where is the Regulatory Body in this fray?


    NONE of the names mentioned are exempt from the threat of Corruption! They stick out like a sore thumb, RELYING on ONE predominant NDT Company for Integrity in Inspection?


    No, I am no Attorney, but I have dealt with many. Nothing will withstand the Scrutiny of Law in this space!! Ignition is a key word to elevate the claim of Damage.


    Any Publicly Traded NDT companies?


    Reliable folks exist and are for hire. Contact me!
    18 Aug 2013, 03:57 PM Reply Like
  • dhunter3759sa
    , contributor
    Comments (516) | Send Message
    Who makes these PIGS, I may want to invest, especially if they are coming out with updated models to replace the old pigs !
    18 Aug 2013, 04:53 PM Reply Like
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