Editor's note: Opinions expressed by the author are his own.

June 10, 1999, was the day that the petroleum pipeline industry would never forget. A gasoline pipeline explosion in a park in Bellingham, Wash., killed an 18-year-old fisherman and led to the deaths the next day of two 10-year-old boys. The blast was caused by a rupture blamed on operator errors and equipment malfunctions.

The ramifications are still felt by industry 20 years later. Business would never be the same, nor should it have been. But to discuss Bellingham, as it has come to be known, without understanding the massive changes the industry has since undertaken would be a disservice.

History Of Negligence

The faulty pipeline was operated by Olympic Pipeline Co., which co-owned a bundle of fuel pipelines beginning at refineries in the Bellingham area and running south to Seattle and Portland. Olympic owned by Equilon Pipeline Co. was a joint venture between Shell Oil and Texaco. The system is now owned by BP.

A three-year investigation found it was caused by a series of errors including failure to properly train employees, a faulty computer SCADA system and a malfunctioning pressure relief valve that failed to open properly on the 16-in. line. This led to a surge in pressure after an automatic valve shut down for unknown reasons and 237,000 gallons of gasoline began spilling into creeks.

Investigators learned that five years prior to the disaster, a construction crew working for the city damaged the pipeline while constructing the city’s water treatment plant. Olympic failed to find or repair the damage.

The young fisherman was overcome by fumes and drowned before the explosion. The 10-year-olds were playing with a lighter which set off the blast. Property damage was estimated at $60 million. Olympic pleaded guilty to several of the charges and paid out settlements totaling $112 million in addition to paying $75 million in fines and penalties; the figure doesn’t include what it paid for emergency response. Two Olympic officials served jail time, a third received probation, and their company was forced into bankruptcy. The event marked the first conviction of a pipeline company under the 1979 Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act.   

The entire pipeline industry was shaken to its core, none more so than the liquids pipeline sector. Attendance at API’s annual spring liquids pipeline conference surged as more and more operators sent their staffs to learn how to avoid another Bellingham.

Enter AOPL

The Association of Oil Pipelines (AOPL), formed in 1947, has taken an increasingly active role in helping to define pipeline safety standards. It has established the Pipeline Safety Excellence Initiative focused on sharing pipeline safety principles; continuous industry-wide safety efforts; annual safety performance repeating; and annual strategic planning.

John Stoody, AOPL’s vice president of government and public relations.

John Stoody, AOPL’s vice president of government and public relations, closely follows the industry’s ongoing work to improve safety. So, what has changed since that fateful day?

“Pipeline laws, regulations and operator practices are like night and day from 20 years ago. Congress, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and pipeline operators really took the tragedy and lessons of Bellingham to heart and instituted a broad statutory and regulatory remaking as to how operators inspect and maintain their pipelines,” Stoody told Hart Energy.

For example, federal pipeline safety laws imposed new requirements for oil, natural gas and products operators to proactively inspect their pipelines and conduct preventative maintenance to find and fix problems before they become unsafe.  

“In the years since, operators have instituted new programs to comply with federal regulations, setting up pipeline inspection schedules, using smart pigs to find cracking, corrosion or dents and be able to catch any issues early so they can perform preventative maintenance,” Stoody said.

“Federal regulations require operators to fix issues within a certain time and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is always inspecting, and where necessary, enforcing against pipeline operators to ensure their compliance.”

Wake-Up Call

Stoody said Bellingham was a wake-up call for the oil pipeline industry. “It was, not only with modern, proactive inspection and maintenance programs, but also our ‘Call Before You Dig’ programs to ensure public awareness of the right-of-way. It’s also to require that operators proactively reach out to property owners along the pipelines to ensure they know they need to call before they dig, to understand pipelines that are in their neighborhood, and that they are safe forms of infrastructure, but we need to take care of them to protect them from harm.”

The advancement of technology is the best indicator of how the industry has strived for safer pipelines. The improvement is like “night and day,” Stoody added.

“We’ve not only seen the advent, but successive generations of smart pigs like  MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or ultrasound over the years have become better at detecting smaller features; they can pick up microscopic fractures or the very beginnings of corrosion long before they have any impact on the pipe. That allows the operators to get out there earlier and keep their pipeline infrastructure in good working order.”

It also means, industry officials and transportation experts agree that if properly maintained, pipelines will keep on operating safely, regardless of age.
The most exciting advances today are in inspection technology, the AOPL executive said. But while smart pigging or inline inspections receive much attention, they are not the only tools vital to maintain and ensure pipeline safety. The overall goal is to harness a broad array of technologies and advanced operating procedures to thwart any dangers to pipelines.

Better Products, Better Procedures

“They (smart pigging) are definitely a vital tool but we have a host of tools,” Stoody said. “We have leak detection technologies and control room management procedures that require operators to shut lines down immediately upon signs of trouble and not restart the pipeline until they check the pipe and have an all clear signal.

“We’re constantly working on leak detection technologies. Drones and imaging from overflights are another exciting area where we have the ability to monitor the pipes more frequently and more safely and provide a greater level of oversight and quicker reaction to any pipe situation that has helped us spot trends and guide where our safety programs need to focus.

natural gas pipeline
Source: Shutterstock.com

“The ultrasonic technologies they use, the analytics to peer into the pipe wall, the metallurgy and fracture mechanics to analyze pipe—there is so much cutting-edge science and technology going on. We certainly also have great advances in the steels we use compared to 20 or 40 years ago. The coatings applied to ward away corrosion and provide additional levels of protection. We have cathodic corrosion protections and ever more sophisticated epoxy coatings applied in the factory that ward away corrosion.”

What might we expect to see as the next level of technology for pipeline safety?

“We’ve got from being proactive to the next generation of harnessing technology and the ability to be predictive on pipeline health,” Stoody said. “We not only are advancing the technologies like smart pigs through research and development, but also the analytical software enabling us to interpret the inspection data and better predict the future and health of the pipeline over years.

“We want to conduct engineering assessments that are customized to each pipe and its condition:  its materials and coatings, the environment in which it operates, and give an accurate reading on the health of a pipeline,” Stoody explained. “Like when you go to the doctor, you not only get a clean bill of health today, but you’re able to predict the health of the pipe over coming years and take any action the pipe may need before anything becomes an issue.”

Increasing R&D Funding

It also means that the industry is willing to spend to ensure pipeline integrity.

“I would say we have a robust R&D program,” Stoody said. “Another bright spot where the entire industry—liquids pipeline operators, gas pipeline operators, long-distance transmission, local distribution companies operating in North America, Europe, Asia—are all coming together and pooling their R&D funds to fund projects that allow us to develop new technologies and better understand complex problems.

“We increasingly see the long-ago, low hanging fruit was plucked in terms of safety problems and technologies we’ve developed in the last 20 years. The regulatory programs have made pipelines the safest form of transportation for delivering energy,” he continued.

“But to counter the last few rare pipeline incidents—usually a confluence of very rare events that on their own would not trigger a pipeline incident but if two or three of those should overlap, then you have a potential incident—we are really trying to get the last few causes of pipeline incidents, and for that we need the ever-sophisticated technology and the ever-sophisticated modeling engineering capabilities to make the pipeline infrastructure as safe as it can be.”
Much of the R&D is conducted through the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), a nonprofit consortium of pipeline operators. PRCI funds research both through universities and engineering consultants, along with a technology demonstration center in Houston.

Analysis can be done throughout the country in terms of harnessing operator systems and reviewing the research or past reports for lessons learned, Stoody explained. API continues to offer programs focused on industry best practices as well as cutting-edge approaches to detecting and mitigating corrosion or cracking or dents in pipe. The bottom line is that operators are showing unprecedented cooperation in sharing knowledge designed to improve pipeline safety.

“Safety is not an area where operators compete,” he emphasized. “They join together to pool their R&D dollars, they send volunteers to industry-organized safety groups, and they jointly develop new best practices to tackle new pipeline issues. They may compete commercially, but when it comes to safety, they are working together improve their pipeline systems.”

Role of Government

Is there more the federal government can do?

“Certainly, the government has a role in research and development. PHMSA has a research program where they do similar research to industry. Where we are pressing them,” Stoody said, “is to enable the incorporation of best practices and new technologies into federal regulations. There are gaps in current regulations for recent challenges we’ve seen with cracking in pipelines or dents with cracks and we believe we have new technologies or new best practices that operators can use to protect their pipelines from those issues. We need the government to facilitate incorporating those newly developed technologies and best practices into regulations so that we can all benefit from those advances.”

One issue industry executives and government officials invariably disagree over is the amount of regulation. When is enough, enough?

“What we want are common sense and smart regulations,” Stoody suggested.  “Pipelines in almost every case are unique in the route they take, the conditions they operate in, the materials from which they’re constructed, the products they carry, their operating conditions, so it’s impossible to have a one-size-fits-all regulation.
“We definitely understand the need to have federal baseline regulations, but we want to ensure that regulations when they come along address issues of need and do so in a way that allows operators to design safety programs that reflect the individual needs of their different pipelines,” he continued.

“We appreciate when PHMSA, NTSB or pipeline operators identify an issue, and with the industry best-practice programs we are constantly trying to develop new practices to ensure operators keep pipelines safe. There is always room to modernize and ensure that federal regulations reflect the latest technologies and know-how.”

Looming Challenges For Operators

In today’s litigious society, the overriding issue for all energy pipelines is to operate safely, even beyond what regulators mandate. Stoody’s final thoughts:

“The continuing challenge is ensuring our pipelines operate safely; we have the safest track record for all modes of transportation, and we know we have a constant obligation to operate safely. We always can and should be trying to do better in terms of pipeline safety, operation, using all the technologies and procedures we can to keep the pipe safe. We never want to rest or stop and we recognize we should always be trying to do better.”