Pipelines: safe by design

There are approximately 110,000 kilometres of transmission pipelines operating underground in Canada, transporting millions of barrels of oil every day. And because pipeline operators place such a high importance on operating these pipelines safely, most of us aren’t even aware this is going on beneath us.

This seeming “invisibility” is a direct result of the safety efforts pipeline operators build right into every pipeline constructed.

Pipeline construction starts and ends with safety

According to Yvanna Ireland, manager, Operations Engineering at Kinder Morgan Canada, questions about safety play a pivotal role in every decision made in the pipeline construction process:

“Public safety and minimizing environmental impact are at the forefront of the life cycle of pipelines, right from construction through to the day-to-day operation of the systems. New pipelines utilize the latest construction practices, high strength materials and high performance coatings to ensure the pipeline can operate safely for many years,” she says.

 “Once in service, many processes are in place and latest technologies utilized to monitor the pipelines to ensure continued safe operations. Pipelines have been, and will continue to be, the safest method to transport oil and gas products.”

Pipes of steel: when it comes to safety, materials matter

Pipelines are generally built using carbon steel, a material chosen due to the following properties:

Interesting steel facts 

Has been used for over 100 years as a primary building material for things like bridges, factories, cars, trains and train tracks.
Is one of the most studied and well-understood building materials in the world.
Steel pipe is manufactured all over the world to exacting quality standards and is tested rigorously at many levels well before it’s used in a pipeline.
  • It’s easy to weld
  • It can withstand high operating temperatures and pressures
  • It can be protected from corrosion
  • It can remain indefinitely in service if properly maintained

But none of these properties are taken for granted. Before any pipeline is constructed, all steel material is subjected to a series of tests to verify what stresses may cause it to deform and to determine how readily it resists fracture. This intensive testing continues through the construction process to ensure the final pipeline conforms to exact specifications.

“Pipelines are built and managed very carefully by professionals who ensure the best available materials and best practices are used in the installation of the pipe. The most current technology is also utilized to maintain the pipe once it is in service,” says Ireland.

Protecting pipeline integrity

Every pipeline is built with the expectation that it will be used for at least 20 years. In order to ensure this lifespan, steps are taken to protect pipes from rust and corrosion.

Ireland says the first defense against pipeline corrosion is putting an effective coating on the external surface of the pipe, similar to the industrial paints used on bridges and buildings, and even cars, to protect them from the elements.

Today’s new pipelines are installed with high performance coatings, which undergo rigorous testing similar to those applied to steel materials. Every pipeline coating material is tested for its resistance to failure, how well it can withstand water penetration and soil stresses, and how well it stays adhered to pipe steel materials.

Should a pipeline experience corrosion, or be damaged during transportation and installation, the safety of the pipeline is protected through cathodic protection.

Cathodic protection: a process that involves electrically connecting other metals to a pipe, which corrode more easily and protect the integrity of the pipe. 

Companies monitor cathodic protection constantly, conducting surveys on the pipe to ensure that adequate cathodic protection levels are maintained to minimize corrosion growth. They also periodically measure corrosion features using sophisticated in-pipe computerized instruments called inline inspection tools. If corrosion levels exceed safe limits, repairs are undertaken to restore the strength of the pipe (by either replacing sections of pipe or installing protective sleeves).

All of these safety measures are in place to protect the integrity of pipelines – with the end goal always being the safety of Canadians and the environment.

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 110,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2011, 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 percent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.