How are pipelines operated and maintained?

From the first day the product starts to flow, the pipeline becomes a vital artery for Canada’s energy needs. Thousands of people ensure the product keeps flowing safely and securely through the line.

Liquids pipelines:

Entering from the source

In a typical oil field, a number of small gathering lines lead from each well to central gathering facilities called oil batteries. Larger feeder pipelines, which are operated by oil producers, transport the crude oil to nearby terminals. The largest lines – transmission pipelines – transport crude oil and other liquids across the country. These are operated by CEPA members.

Arriving at the terminal

CEPA members operate strategically placed terminals across Canada to gather and store oil before it enters the main transmission lines. Think of these terminals as being similar to the large interchanges on the TransCanada highway where many smaller roads converge. These sophisticated terminals are operated 24/7/365 by people who are specialized in the safe handling and shipping of oil.

An inline inspection tool, called a smart pig, is placed into a launcher, so it can inspect the inside of the pipeline for any anomalies. Photo courtesy of TransCanada.

An inline inspection tool, called a smart pig, is placed into a launcher, so it can inspect the inside of the pipeline for any anomalies. Photo courtesy of TransCanada.

Natural gas pipelines:

Entering at the source

In a typical natural gas field, a number of small gathering lines lead from each well to gas processing facilities.

Processing the natural gas

At the gas processing facility, natural gas liquids (NGLs) like ethane, propane and butane, are separated from the natural gas, then transported via liquid pipelines to oil refineries for processing. Because natural gas is odourless, a product called methanethiol is added to the remaining natural gas to make it smell like rotten eggs, making it easy for people to detect gas leaks.

Natural gas needs to be processed into the products we rely on every day.

Pumping through the transmission lines

Once it’s processed, natural gas pipeline operators ship the natural gas through large transmission pipelines to the people who need it. Compressor stations are located along the pipeline route every 65 to 160 km. Large compressors, similar to jet engines (with up to 36,000 horsepower), move natural gas through the pipeline at around 40 km an hour. Sophisticated sensors along the pipeline route collect information like temperature, flow speed and pressure. The information is monitored in real-time from the control room, often via satellite or fibre optic feeds.

This is the beginning of a safe, carefully monitored journey.

During an integrity dig, workers may dig by hand around the pipeline in order to protect the pipeline's coating.

During an integrity dig, workers may dig by hand around the pipeline in order to protect the pipeline.

A pipeline is sand-blasted during an integrity dig to remove it's protective coating, so a potential anomaly can be assessed.

A pipeline is sand-blasted during an integrity dig to remove its protective coating, so a potential anomaly can be assessed.

A pipeline integrity dig.

A pipeline integrity dig.

Workers closely inspect the pipeline looking for anomalies, during an integrity dig.

Workers closely inspect the pipeline looking for anomalies, during an integrity dig.

Block valves allow pipeline operators to turn off the flow of product in a pipeline. Photo courtesy of Enbridge Pipelines.

Block valves allow pipeline operators to turn off the flow of product in a pipeline. Photo courtesy of Enbridge Pipelines.

Monitoring from the control room

Just like NASA has mission control in Houston, every CEPA member – whether they operate liquids or natural gas pipelines – has a master control room where all their pipeline operations are monitored. Every pumping station, every remote sensor, every maintenance operation, every patrol on the ground and in the air is monitored in the control room using a SCADA system (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), similar to those used to monitor airports and space stations. Any changes in regular operation are quickly detected here.

CEPA members work together to share technology and practices, making their control rooms among the best in the world.

Watching all the time

In addition to remote sensors, crews patrol the line doing regular maintenance and keeping a careful eye on the pipeline right-of-way. Video surveillance cameras, fitted with hydrocarbon sensors (hydrocarbons give off a unique infrared signature) are also being used as well as temperature sensors to detect leaks.

Protecting and inspecting

All equipment along a pipeline is carefully inspected and maintained – both inside and out. For example, the inside of a pipeline is inspected regularly using pipeline inspection gauges, also known as smart pigs. They are highly sophisticated machines equipped with GPS tracking and sensors. These smart pigs travel inside the pipe to identify and locate anything out of the ordinary, like minute cracks or corrosion. The tool is placed into the launcher or launching station, it is then driven by the flow of the product, pushing the pig along down the line until it reaches the receiving station.

If a smart pig inspection detects an anomaly, pipeline operators may decide to conduct an integrity dig, which involves excavating a section of buried pipeline. Integrity digs give pipeline operators an up-close view of the pipeline to determine if a pipeline repair or replacement is required. CEPA members conduct thousands of integrity digs each year to proactively prevent a spill or leak.

If an anomaly is found, it is repaired immediately.

Any changes are immediately sent to the control room, setting off alarms.

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