From design to operation: How pipeline operators safely deliver energy
Canada’s 119,000 kilometres of transmission pipelines transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily production of natural gas and onshore crude oil to markets in Canada and the US – this represents the majority of oil and gas you use every day.
From end to end, these pipelines are among the most highly regulated and carefully conceived and monitored forms of infrastructure in the country.
When you get on a plane to head out for a vacation, you expect to take off and land safe and sound. Just like that plane ride, safely delivering energy involves coordinating many moving parts and paying attention to the smallest details. And it’s something that CEPA members take very seriously.
Here are a few ways that Canada’s transmission pipeline operators work to make that energy journey as safe as possible.
Planning and design
At the very beginning of a pipeline project, its route is carefully planned. Experts head out to the proposed route and evaluate its path, looking for ways to minimize environmental impact, speaking with stakeholders, and keeping safety top of mind.
In addition to checking the route right on the ground, these experts also use data extracted from high-resolution photos and advanced radar (LIDAR) to complete the route design.
Every pipeline includes a detailed environmental plan, and there can often be as many environmental experts as engineers working on each project.
The Pipeline Act of 1949 (which was in place even before seatbelts were required in cars) created the foundation for Canada’s pipelines to become the safest in the world. Pipelines are regulated based on jurisdiction, so if a pipeline crosses provincial or international borders, it’s regulated by the National Energy Board (NEB). Pipelines that operate within a province/territory fall under the provincial/territorial regulator’s authority.
When considering an application for a new pipeline, regulators assess the pipeline’s proposed design, construction and operation to make sure it’s focused on safety and the environment and is in the public’s best interest.
Once the route and design are approved by the regulator, construction of the pipeline begins.
Steel used to manufacture the pipes is exposed to high heat in a steel mill, while physical and mechanical properties are analyzed to ensure it adheres to specifications. Seams are welded and checked ultrasonically, while random samples of the steel that goes into the pipe are stretched to ensure they don’t break. Every single length of pipe is put to the test by filling them with water at high pressure — much higher than the pipe will be required to sustain in regular use.
Then, because steel can rust, a blasting process cleans and etches the pipe, and a protective coating is applied. When the coating has cured, imperfections are fixed and the pipe is shipped for installation.
Into the ground
Pipelines are manufactured to match the contour of the land. Once the pipes are delivered to site, the sections are welded together and checked for integrity using radiography and/or ultrasound technology. The assembled pipe is then lowered into trenches, and fitted with valves at regular intervals to allow for product flow to be stopped if necessary.
The trenches are then back filled and the land above is restored. You won’t see the pipeline after this point, apart from the occasional surface facilities, because they are located a metre or more beneath the ground.
Pipeline right of ways need to be maintained to allow for unrestricted inspection – on the ground and in the air.
With the pipeline in place, the focus becomes monitoring and the safe operation of the pipeline.
Every pipeline is monitored from high-tech control centers, where computer programs and personnel watch over the operation of the pipeline 24/7 and sound an alarm if a leak or other emergency is detected. For example, if there is a nearby forest fire, detection equipment will notify the centre if temperatures rise.
The computers in the control centres read a continuous stream of data transmitted from along the pipeline, including acoustics, strain and temperature, among others. CEPA member companies are always improving their monitoring technology, and are able to track and analyze more information all the time.
But that’s not all.
Surveillance planes regularly fly over pipeline routes to keep an eye on the operations. Tools called ‘smart PIGs’ — highly advanced tools that inspect pipes from the inside — are regularly sent through the pipeline to check for anomalies; they can detect possible problems years in advance. In 2016, more than 39,000 kilometres of pipeline were inspected from the inside.
CEPA members also regularly conduct “integrity digs” — excavating portions of pipeline for visual inspection and maintenance. In 2016 alone, CEPA members conducted 2,696 integrity digs.
Advanced technology is used in all phases of pipeline planning, building and operating. But the best protection comes from the highly trained and talented people that work for Canada’s transmission pipeline operators. They’re the ones evaluating routes, building the pipes, and keeping watch in the control rooms to make sure that the energy Canadians use every day is delivered safely and responsibly.