American oil production is expected to peak in 2019. However, for oil pipeline operators, navigating the safety and regulation landscape continues to pose significant challenges. Questionable regulation policies, corroding pipeline infrastructure, and difficulties locating existing underground pipelines are all factors currently complicating the work of oil and gas pipeline companies in the United States.
Past Incidents and New Laws
A major complaint regarding current pipeline regulation laws is that U.S. regulations are based primarily on past incidents. Operators say it’s better to craft specific safety plans after carefully assessing the unique environment surrounding each pipeline.
Some operators believe current regulations impede their ability to manage the safety of their pipeline operations. Because U.S. pipeline regulations are based largely on past incidents, they often fail to account for the ever-changing conditions surrounding pipelines.
According to a GL Noble Denton survey, 76% of piping professionals would rather see a goal-based style of regulation. Such a system would be flexible, so differing methods could be employed to reach goals, as long as the precisely determined targets regarding safety and environmental protection were met.
An incident in Carlsbad, New Mexico in 2000 illustrates the flawed regulatory environment that pipeline professionals face. In this instance, twelve people were killed by a fire that resulted from a ruptured natural gas transmission pipeline.
Following the incident, regulation of pipelines increased. However, the methods of inspection devised by regulatory bodies continue to insufficiently anticipate the variable conditions that surround pipelines. It is possible that if safety standards in Carlsbad had allowed for a more nuanced approach to pipeline management, the incident may have been avoided altogether.
An Aging Network
Pipeline management is especially complicated by the vast underground network of aging pipes throughout the country. For decades, underground pipes were laid by thousands of companies, and it can be extremely difficult to account for the presence of all old pipes. Current regulatory practices often fail to account for the role the pipeline locations play in oilfield risk management. Additionally, even when all pipe locations are accounted for, gauging pipe integrity and diagnosing structural problems are not simple tasks.
In-line pipe monitoring tools ease the difficulty of maintaining safe and efficient piping somewhat. These tools generate data on pipeline conditions, and work in conjunction with the aerial and ground inspections done by trained workers. In-line monitoring can provide enough data to inform operators and regulators about possible risk management tactics regarding pipe structure.
Nonetheless, there is a need for better data management to enable better and quicker cost-benefit analysis of which pipelines to rehabilitate and which to replace. At a time when American production of oil and gas is starting to rebound, operators lack the tools necessary to guarantee safe, effective pipeline management.
When it comes to pipeline industry safety, in-line inspection tools were certainly a step in the right direction, but the petrochemical industry still faces the challenge of aging underground pipelines. Though the advent of goal-based regulation is a promising sign for the industry’s future, the reconciliation of outdated regulation policies with the realities of the modern business climate is a struggle that continues to plague the oil and gas industries.