Is technology enough to protect a 100-year old pipeline?

Canada’s first transmission pipeline was built in 1853. While it’s been many decades since that particular pipeline was in operation, we do have pipelines that have been in service for 50 years or more, and many people wonder if that’s a cause for concern.

After all, we have oil and gas reserves that will continue to be viable for another 50 years. This means that our pipelines could need to operate safely and efficiently for 100 years.

Phil HopkinsTo learn more about the safety and viability of a 100-year old pipeline, we spoke with Phil Hopkins, a pipeline engineering consultant based in the U.K. Phil has worked in the oil and gas pipeline business for nearly 40 years, and continues to be involved with training and teaching: he was a professorial fellow and visiting professor at Newcastle University, U.K., and currently is a visiting professor at Northumbria University, U.K.

Phil spoke at the recent International Pipeline Conference about ‘The 100-year old pipeline’. We asked him to explain the implications. “The pipelines in use today were mainly designed by our pre-war generation, and by the time they are retired they may have had six different generations of workers involved in their care and operation,” said Phil. “We need to ensure those workers are equipped with the right knowledge. If one generation fails to pass on its knowledge, we have a break in the information chain.”

We asked Phil why he believes that the knowledge and skill of workers is as important to pipeline safety as the technology that protects them.

Q: What are the pros and cons of technology advancements when it comes to protecting a 100 year-old pipeline?

Phil: Technology can be good and bad. Engineers will happily use any technology that improves safety and efficiency, but it’s important not to rely on technology alone. As technology advances, human error becomes a major issue, as that is the only error left to make! Those human errors could be caused by a lack of competence (which is a mixture of skills, experience and knowledge), but the passing of knowledge from one generation of workers to the next can help prevent this.

Q: So you believe staff competence is key?

Phil: Yes, and it is becoming more important every year. We need to spend as much time and money on our staff as we do on acquiring new technologies, software, and processes. Knowledge is transferred by working closely with people, coaching them, sharing experiences and advising or mentoring them. Staff competence, knowledge transfer, etc., must be a corporate goal, process-driven and assessed regularly.

We need to ensure pipeline engineers are constantly checked for their competence as technology changes. Not easy, but essential.

Q: How relevant is the experience of veteran and baby boomer workers in an industry where technology changes on a regular basis?

Phil: It is very important in the engineering industry, but sometimes underestimated. Why? Well, in some industries, such as computers and cell phones, new technology can dilute the value of experience, as the technology changes every year, and past knowledge is of little use. But engineers in industries such as the pipeline industry work with the laws of science, which remain the same for every generation, and by gaining experience in these complex laws they master them. So, an engineer with 25 years’ experience in our industry is a good thing. In the pipeline business, experience and knowledge matter, and this knowledge needs to be passed to the next generations as our pipelines progress up to their 100-year birthday.

Q: Do you believe new pipelines are needed in North America?

Phil: I am an engineer, and my priority is the safety of people and the environment. You have a good pipeline safety record here in Canada. We have over 50 years of reserves of oil and gas in the world, and some of these rich reserves are here in Canada. Why would you not want to develop these reserves if there is a demand, and safety can be assured?

The important things to do first with new pipelines is to both reassure the general public that the engineers know what they are doing, and demonstrate our commitment to safety by putting it first in all our business dealings. 

You can read more about the importance of safety culture in these blog posts: