World’s Safest Pipelines
Canada’s pipelines are among the safest in the world. In 2020, operators of transmission pipelines in Canada safely transported more than 1.3 billion barrels of crude oil and more than 4.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas across the country. During 2020 there were four incidents involving crude oil or liquids pipelines, of which only one was considered significant. There were 15 releases (leaks or similar incidents) from natural gas pipelines, none were significant. All spilled or released material was cleaned up. (Source: Canadian Energy Pipelines Association).
Pipeline monitoring, inspections and technology result in constant improvements in pipeline safety. For example, in Alberta the total number of pipeline incidents in 2020 was about 40 per cent lower than in 2011, while the total length of pipelines grew by 11 per cent between 2011 and 2020. (Source: Alberta Energy Regulator)
A “significant incident” includes one or more of the following: serious injury or fatality, liquid release of greater than eight cubic metres (50 barrels), unintentional ignition or fire, or rupture or break of a pipeline.
Pipeline Monitoring and Inspection
From its first day of operation, a pipeline becomes a vital part of Canada’s energy needs and its operation is monitored around the clock to spot potential problems before an incident occurs. Nobody wants a pipeline incident and operators are focused on safety for the environment, the public, pipeline workers, and pipelines and associated facilities.
All transmission pipeline operators have a master control room where pipeline operations are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Advanced computer software programs like those used in airports watch every aspect of a pipeline’s operation. If sensors in the pipeline detect a change, the pipeline can be inspected, and shut down if necessary.
At water crossings, pipeline operators monitor banks and slopes to make sure they remain stable. If there are changes, alarms will alert the operator to a potential spill. Pipelines crossing water are equipped with block valves on both sides that can close quickly to stop flow in the pipeline.
Pipeline operators also conduct integrity digs, which means digging a section of buried pipe to clean and examine it. Pipeline operators conduct thousands of integrity digs every year.
To ensure pipeline safety, Canada’s pipeline operators use sophisticated technology such as:
- Remote sensorstrack changes in pressure, flow rate or temperature.
- Hyperspectral imagers (specialized video cameras) are sensitive enough to detect extremely low volumes of evaporated hydrocarbons within a two kilometre radius of the camera.
- Aerial light detection and rangingimagery created from airborne laser sensors are used to monitor hazards like landslides, earthquakes and river erosion, which can damage pipelines.
- Fiber optic cables installed alongside a new pipeline can help detect tiny leaks by sensing changes of temperature and vibrations caused by flow from a pipe.
- SmartBalls, which are placed in the pipeline to travel with the flow and listen for leaks. They have an acoustic data system that can detect small, possibly even pinhole-sized leaks.
- Smart membranesthat turn the pipe itself into a sensing device. The membranes are wrapped around pipelines, which can sense leaking fluid and signal operators.
- Helicopters and drones are used to view pipelines from the air.
- Specially trained dogsare sometimes used to search for leaks, as their ultra-sensitive noses can detect leaks that machines can’t.
- Smart pigs are sophisticated devices that allow operators to see inside the pipe to find anything out of the ordinary, like minute cracks or signs of corrosion. Smart pigs travel inside a pipeline using ultrasonic technology to spot issues such as metal defects and report any potential issues to the pipeline operator.
Using Smart PIGs to Inspect Pipelines
Pipelines are inspected using a device called a pipeline inspection gauge, also known as a smart PIG. These highly sophisticated electronic tools are inserted into the pipeline to scan the interior of the pipe for leaks, cracks, corrosion or other defects that could make the pipeline unsafe.
The evolution of such inspection tools has led to a whole new world of pipeline safety. Cutting-edge technology gives the industry a greater ability to collect and analyze data to effectively prevent incidents. (Source: Canadian Energy Pipelines Association, 2021).
Responding to Emergencies
Pipeline emergencies are rare. But to be prepared, every pipeline operator engages in detailed planning, preparation and practice to ensure they are ready for anything. If an incident occurs, pipeline operators work with local and regional emergency response teams to stop the leak, contain the spill and limit impacts.
Detailed emergency response plans are developed to cover any scenario, and rehearsed to ensure smooth execution. Pipeline companies also train and work with municipal emergency services to ensure everyone is ready if needed.