Mother Nature unpredictable? Pipeline technology is trying to change that

This is the first post in CEPA’s “Pipeline innovations” blog series. The series explores technologies and innovations that are helping pipeline companies continuously improve safety and environmental protection.

BGC Engineering

Have you heard of the term “act of God”? Basically, it refers to natural forces that humans cannot predict.

Technology is setting the bar for “act of God” a lot higher by helping pipeline companies predict natural events that were once considered unpredictable. BGC Engineering, an international consulting firm, is using a geohazard management program to help operators prevent pipeline damage from forces such as landslides and floods by identifying geological risks before they occur.

“The program is proactive because it helps operators anticipate if and when a pipeline could fail from river erosion or ground movements,” said Mark Leir, senior geological engineer with BGC Engineering and one of the program’s founders.

Pipeline innovations explained: A geohazard management program

What is a geohazard management program?

Geohazards are geological processes – such as landslides, seismicity (earthquakes) or river erosion – that may damage a pipeline.

When BGC creates a geohazard management program for a pipeline company, it uses sophisticated database software to build an inventory of geohazard sites, such as watercourse crossings and slopes, along a company’s pipeline route. The software also allows companies to monitor these geohazards, sometimes in near real time (more about that later).

A geohazard identified and mapped on a pipeline route.

A geohazard identified and mapped on a pipeline route.

“A program will usually include an inventory of several hundred geohazard sites along the pipeline. The program will also include a procedure to regularly inspect, monitor and maintain the sites,” explained Leir, who used his experience assessing rock fall risks for B.C. railways to help develop this hazard-management system for pipelines.

Identifying geohazards: How does the technology work?

A BGC employee completing a field inspection at a pipeline watercourse crossing.

A BGC employee completing a field inspection at a pipeline watercourse crossing.

So, what technology does BGC use to identify geohazards?

They perform extensive field inspections and gather data using tools such as Google Earth’s aerial imagery and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) imagery created from airborne laser sensors.

“LiDAR imagery allows us to see in great detail the shapes and patterns of the ground surface under the vegetation and helps us identify historic and active landslides,” said Leir.

Monitoring natural events in near real time

Geohazard management programs do not just identify risks, they help companies monitor and respond to natural events as they happen.

Leir explained that monitoring instruments are placed at pipeline locations to allow companies to watch ground movements in near real time.

Plus, companies can also monitor river flows at watercourse crossings because BGC’s database pulls in readings from government river monitoring gauges in both Canada and the U.S.

River flow monitoring using government gauge stations.

River flow monitoring using government gauge stations.

“We are now able to monitor all 16,000 pipeline crossings (of BGC’s clients) in near real time during the annual flood season to determine if the pipeline is susceptible to being exposed or ruptured and if temporarily shutting down the pipeline before a failure occurs is required,” Leir said.

Why does this innovation matter?

It’s simple. Managing risks from Mother Nature helps companies protect the public and the environment by preventing pipeline incidents.

“The purpose of the program is to find and repair exposed pipeline, minimize pipeline failures and keep the product in the pipeline and out of watercourses,” stated Leir.

Learn more about maintaining pipeline integrity.

Photos courtesy of BGC Engineering.

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 115,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2013, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.