Could a New Leak Detection Technology End the Pipeline Debate?

Spawned in space, the latest in pipeline leak detection systems can save lives, save the industry money, and has the potential to do the unthinkable: bring environmentalists and industry leaders together. 

This new advanced pipeline leak detection systems (LDS) uses remote-sensing technology on aircraft flying overhead that can measure very small ground level concentrations of escaped gas.

This “realSens” technology, developed by Synodon, is mounted on a helicopter and piloted by GPS over a pipeline, detecting small leaks before they become big problems.

The significance of this new technology is not lost on the industry, for whom it represents savings, nor is it lost on environmentalists, for whom it represents environmental protection. It certainly isn’t lost on people who live near aging pipelines that carry hazardous liquids and could pose dangers due to leaks or explosions.

A 2012 study on leak detection by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) points out that 44% of over 170,000 miles of old hazardous liquid pipelines are in High Consequence Areas, which means a lot of lives are at risk that could be protected by this new technology. 

The industry should be excited at the prospect of this new leak detection technology—and it’s getting there. Slowly but surely, major pipeline companies are recognizing the cost-saving benefits of this technology.

After all, pipeline leaks, ruptures, and spills are “systematically causing more and more property damage... in bad years you have $5 billion in damages due to pipeline-related accidents,” Dr. David Shaw, one of the report’s authors, notes. 

Pipeline operators could spend 10 times more on than they currently do on leak detection and still end up spending less than they do in response to accidents.

Synodon founder and CEO Adrian Banica agrees: “Pipeline companies would likely be justified in spending $10 million per year for every 400 miles of pipelines because they are already spending more than that on public property damage,” Banica told Oilprice.com.

The internal systems that pipeline operators use now cannot head off dangerous leaks as fast as the new remote-sensing external systems. This new technology is precise and similar to fingerprinting.

Think of a gas sensor as a big infrared camera that is particularly adept at detecting very, very small color changes in the infrared spectrum. The color changes that we detect are caused by various gasses that the instrument looks at. Every gas in nature absorbs and colors the infrared light that passes through it in a very specific way. From the shade of the color, we can also infer how much methane or ethane we can see in our instruments. In effect, it’s like a color fingerprint of the gas.

What’s at stake is upwards of a million kilometers of transmission pipelines in North America alone--and that doesn’t even include gathering and distribution pipelines. Many of these pipelines are old and decrepit. 

Syndon has found a way to make its technology attractive to the industry beyond damage-control savings. It is offering what Banica calls a “basket of services” designed to reduce the overall costs for clients. 

“During our leak detection surveys, we collect a lot of different types of data such as visual images, thermal images and very, very accurate GPS information. We’ve repackaged all of those data sets into new value-added products,” Banica said. 

This data could be used for a variety of pipeline operations, including new construction, which requires the collection of a great deal of information for regulatory filings.

By using this new leak detection technology and all the accompanying data sets, pipeline operators can also demonstrate responsibility to regulatory authorities.

As protests continue over the planned Enbridge pipeline in Vancouver, for instance, is it possible that this pipeline giant would embrace this new leak detection technology in an effort to quell the unrest?

Banica thinks so. “Yes they absolutely could, and should. I’m very firm on that answer and I think they are looking at it. Enbridge is a customer of ours already in the United States and they’re very aware of what we offer and do.”

James Stafford is the Editor of Oilprice.com.

Photo credit: ankakay/Flickr


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