An academic’s perspective: Pipelines are good, but they could get better

Dr. Alan Murray, an adjunct professor in the engineering department at the University of Calgary.Canada’s pipeline debate can seem pretty straightforward: You either think pipelines are great for the country or you think they aren’t. But the opinion of many Canadians actually lands on a spectrum between these two viewpoints – which is not a bad thing. Issues are rarely black and white.

For Dr. Alan Murray, an adjunct professor in the engineering department at the University of Calgary, pipeline issues are not black and white, either.

Pipelines are an essential part of life, he said (referring to all types of pipelines, including those that transport energy), but “there’s no system that’s flawless.”

“There is the odd occasion when they fail, and sometimes – not always – a fraction of those that fail may have fairly serious consequences,” said Murray, who has a doctorate in civil engineering and spent decades working in pipeline regulation, consulting and operations.

“But when you take it in the grand scheme of things, in terms of the benefits that people derive from them, that’s the balance the public needs to have,” he added.

To help further inform Canada’s pipeline debate, here are some of Murray’s thoughts on the strengths and limitations of Canada’s pipeline system.

What the pipeline industry is doing well, where it needs to improve

The industry gets a good grade from Murray on its ability to perform maintenance to prevent leaks; he said the majority of companies “do a very, very good job of that.”

He explained that pipeline leaks are uncommon because “pipeline operators are diligent about trying to find those leaks before they happen.”

However, he cautioned that finding small leaks once they occur is difficult given the physics of the system, the limitations of technology and the length of pipelines that traverse our country. (He likens the task of finding a defect that could lead to a leak as similar to a person trying to find one specific blade of grass in an area the size of 1,000 football fields). Leak detection is an area where the industry “needs to get better,” he said.

“There is a research project underway right now to try and improve it,” he said. “It’s not as if (the industry is) sitting on their hands. They are looking at different leak detection methods in order to improve.”

The research project Murray is referring to is being conducted in Edmonton on behalf of the Pipeline Research Council International. They are looking at leak detection technologies that allow companies to find smaller leaks more quickly.

There are other areas where he would like to see the industry improve as well. For example, he would like to see transmission pipeline operators react faster once leaks are suspected and consistently use the 10-minute rule, which gives control room technicians only 10 minutes after an alert to reconcile their readings before they must start shutting down the pipe (basically, they have 10 minutes to determine if the problem is real or if the alert is false).

However, along with his honest criticism, he would also like to see the public become better informed on the necessity of pipelines, and for people to more fully understand the role they play in our everyday lives (providing the means for heating our homes and generating electricity, for example).

“I just wish people were more realistic about the complexity of providing the comforts of modern living,” he said.

We hear what you’re saying

The pipeline industry knows there are areas where we can get better, and we’re listening to stakeholders, critics and experts, like Murray, to find ways to do that. By improving best practices and investing in new technologies, we’re driving towards a single goal: zero incidents. Learn more about what we’re doing to get there.

Get to know Dr. Alan Murray a little better in this video from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 117,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2014, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.4 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.