Going for a run, planning a pipeline . . . technology is changing the way we do both.

This is the sixth post in CEPA’s “pipeline innovations” blog series.

We don’t have to tell you that technology is changing our understanding of geography. Want to find the best place to go for a jog in Vancouver? You could look at this map showing the most popular routes based on GPS data from people who run in the area.

Pipeline companies are also using technology to better plan and manage their routes. Geographic information systems (GISs) are helping companies to continuously advance safety by improving the way they compile and analyze data about a pipeline right-of-way.

So, what is GIS?

You may have heard of GIS technology before. A GIS is a computer system that connects a place on a map to information about that geographic area. There can be many layers of data about a location built into a GIS, and having all this information in one system allows you to analyze the relationships between data and real-world locations. For example, check out how the University of Saskatchewan is using it for historical research.

GIS and pipelines

Hynek Drlik is the GIS team lead with ILF Consultants Inc., an engineering, consulting and project management company which offers a variety of engineering services, including GIS-based solutions for pipeline operators. He explained that, in the case of pipelines, data linked to a map of the pipeline route in a GIS could include:

  • Environmental information, such as details about sensitive areas, wildlife habitats, watercourses and wetlands
  • Landowner information
  • Historical geographic data along the route
  • Information on third-party infrastructure, such as underground structures, power lines, roads and railways
  • Geohazards, such as steep slopes, landslides and seismic faults
  • Information about aboriginal communities along the route
  • Emergency response information for specific areas of a pipeline

“GIS is the core system of integrity management since it has the capabilities to organize and coordinate all the information and its geographic location related to the pipeline,” explained Drlik.

So, how exactly does a GIS help make pipelines safer? Here are a couple examples:

Improved pipeline planning

“The safety of the pipeline starts with routing,” explained Drlik.

A GIS allows companies to analyze all the information they have about a proposed route in one program. This helps the company determine the best route based on many variables including social and environmental impact and geological risks to the pipeline.

Pipeline Planning GIS data for an environmental and social impact study

GIS data for an environmental and social impact study. Image courtesy of ILF Consultants.

Drlik pointed out that a pipeline company can, for example, use GIS to analyze historical maps of a river to find out if the river has migrated and if there’s a risk of the river migrating again. A pipeline route can then be planned accordingly.

Analysis of a pipeline route using a GIS. Image courtesy of ILF Consultants.

Analysis of a pipeline route using a GIS (click image to enlarge). Image courtesy of ILF Consultants.

Identifying risks to pipelines

Drlik explained that a GIS could include LiDAR images (which show terrain features along a route) from when a pipeline was planned and built. A GIS allows that data to be compared alongside information from ongoing monitoring activities.

Why does this matter? This information could help a company detect if land has moved (even by centimetres) and determine if there’s risk of a landslide or erosion.

“You have (access to) all the historical data during the lifecycle of the pipeline and you can analyze where the changes are more significant,” Drlik said.

At the end of the day, it’s about safety

Instead of trying to look at hundreds of different maps and documents containing information about a pipeline, a GIS allows all that information to be stored and analyzed in one place. This helps make pipelines safer by allowing companies to prevent problems, identify risks faster and respond to them more effectively.

Check out these other posts in our pipeline innovations blog series:

  • The truth about tiny pipeline leaks
  • Pipeline Big Brother? 4 ways technology helps companies ‘see’ underground
  • Preventing leaks is important, but what about pipeline safety for workers?
  • Pipeline innovations: Protecting pipelines in order to protect Canadians
  • Mother Nature unpredictable? Pipeline technology is trying to change that

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.