The petroleum industry has always run on technology, be it upstream, midstream or downstream. As the main conduit of this vital industry, pipeline operators continually rely on technological advances to ensure the safety and efficiency of their vast systems.

Midstream Business asked prominent research and industry associations to discuss the forces at play—regulation, environment or system efficiency—that allow operators to do more with fewer resources.

They discussed government vs. private industry sourcing, what new product types developed from the latest technologies will make the greatest impact on pipeline operations, and lastly, the issue of proprietary technologies or information sharing.

Based in suburban Chicago, GTI—formerly Gas Technology Institute—leverages infrastructure-related industry dollars with significant federal and state government funding for research, development and deployment (RD&D).

Government support comes primarily through the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), along with state programs, including California, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Operations Technology Development (OTD) is a member-driven consortium of natural gas utilities administered by GTI that was established in 2003 and has 25 members and provides collaborative funding.  

“As technology plays a larger part in our daily activities, it is increasingly important to invest in research, development and deployment,” Tony Lindsay, GTI managing director, energy delivery, told Midstream Business.  

He noted that technology advances in recent years have helped to improve materials used to construct the U.S. pipeline network, methods for emissions detection and mitigation, prevention of third-party damage, and use of the growing amount of data available about existing infrastructure—just to mention a few. All have an underlying focus on safety and the integrity of the pipeline systems.

Several key factors are involved in the increasing need for RD&D, he added.

“There has been a stronger push for research to develop materials, installation equipment and methods to help control costs while efficiently repairing and replacing an aging infrastructure in the U.S.,” Lindsay said.

“Understanding demands on the distribution system from new energy sources is another new area being addressed. The introduction of renewable natural gas (RNG) into pipelines has also created a need to apply new technologies to ensure that safe and reliable operations continue.”

Pipeline executives insist that safety is always the No. 1 priority and a primary driver for spending research money. Reliability also comes into play as the increased use of natural gas in power generation and the integration of renewables creates new opportunities as well as challenges for operators.

“Improving efficiency in operations, controlling cost and minimizing environmental impact are very important as well. These efforts are driven by operators and owners being responsive to the customers and territories they serve by providing the greatest value possible while maintaining the integrity and safety of their systems,” Lindsay added.

At the local distribution company level, regulators support infrastructure-replacement programs, ensuring that aging systems are replaced with modern materials that technology helps  provide cost-effectively.

Stricter regulations increasingly influence technology advancements by formalizing prudent inspections and practices by operators, and requiring evaluation of risk in their operations. Another step toward improving safety is reducing the primary cause of incidents that compromise pipeline systems, namely damage from third-party construction activities.

This brings the market new tools capable of providing advanced warning and improved accuracy to locate and identify potential conflicts, he said.

Today, a growing awareness about what can be done to minimize the release of emissions into the environment has brought about advancements in methane-detection technologies and the use of advanced monitoring techniques.

Moving forward, Lindsay suggested that sensors, data collection and communications will have a beneficial impact on pipeline operations. The industry now takes greater advantage of building established communication networks for remote monitoring of system pressures, alarms and shutdowns tied to leak detection, weather-related events, excavation activities or third-party damage.

“Gas-quality monitoring and assurance technologies will be necessary as more RNG is fed into pipeline systems. Also, expect that risk modeling and cybersecurity protection will see meaningful changes. Research will emphasize predictive analytics, the reduction of risk and diminishing cyberattack threat exposure, intellectual property theft, and system operations disruption or damage,” he said.

Tracking and traceability of assets being installed is a growing issue, so a standardized approach for capturing pipe, appurtenances welding and coating data is under development. The plan is to enable system operators to more effectively manage data and improve the decision-making process.

Operators are asking for alternatives for inspection and test methods when evaluating pipeline assets. Several technologies are being validated that can provide inspections equivalent or superior to a hydrotest, and can obtain regulatory acceptance, Lindsay said.

Pipeline Research Council International
“Whether it’s looking for ways to safely increase production, enhancing the integrity of the pipeline network, greater understanding of right-of-way intrusion, or reducing the environmental impact of transportation, technology has always been a key part of the oil and gas industry,” Cliff Johnson, president and CEO of the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), told Midstream Business.

Everything is predicated on the industry’s long-avowed mission of zero-tolerance incidents.

“As we move into the future, the industry is stepping up to do even more because any release is too much. The industry, years ago, established the goal of zero incidents. There is a greater acknowledgment that if any operator fails, we all fail,” Johnson said, agreeing with GTI’s Lindsay that “safety is the No. 1 driver for the oil and gas industry to invest in research and development [R&D].”

Based in suburban Washington, D.C., PRCI was founded in 1952 by several pipeline operators to address a specific integrity problem. It has evolved into one of the most influential collaborative venues in tackling industry challenges.

What role should government play in sponsoring R&D?

“That’s an interesting question,” Johnson said, noting that the U.S. falls short of other countries, such as Canada, Australia and some European nations, in funding research for the oil and gas industry.

“The success of pipeline infrastructure should be a better partnership between industry and government — with industry the lead funder — not only to address current challenges but as we shift to emerging energy sources and explore new ways to use existing infrastructure or look to new systems,” he added.

Johnson said an effort is underway within the U.S. Department of Energy, through the National Petroleum Council, to develop a research portfolio for all modes of oil and gas transportation. Funding for the PHMSA Research & Development Program is a continuous concern, he added, with a recent funding cut affecting its ability to be part of the technology development cycle.  

Looking ahead, Johnson suggested the next big step will be the development of the Pipeline Data Hub (PDH).

The PDH will provide information for better tool selection, integrity, safety processes, and development of personnel. For example, the database will enable users to understand the capabilities and limitations of inline inspection tools and non-destructive evaluation (NDE) tools in order to design an integrity program for their pipeline systems.

Maguire Energy Institute
Bruce Bullock, executive director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business in Dallas, feels today’s strengthened emphasis on R&D is largely focused on productivity, cost savings, automation—and less on frontier technologies.

“From 2008-2016, the U.S. had perhaps the most anti-hydrocarbon administration in our history. While the Trump administration has made great strides in reversing many of these policies, the industry now is focused on stricter regulations, environmental issues and public opinion as a way of life,” he told Midstream Business.

“Much of the anti-hydrocarbon agenda has moved downward to the state and local level. At the same time, we are in an economic environment with very volatile crude prices, impacting midstream customers. So, cost savings is paramount as well,” Bullock said.

An improved disciplinary approach could be a real difference maker, Bullock predicted.

“Predictive analytics offers a huge upside for the pipeline industry. The type and extent of data that can now be collected from pipeline operations both today and historically can help prioritize maintenance, inspections, prediction of future failures, etc. 

“This benefits the environment through fewer accidents and lower costs by staying ahead of future failures or problems, and it does so in real times as opposed to just inspections,” he added. “Further, it provides a crystal ball to site new pipelines, so infrastructure doesn’t trail the E&P sector as much in the cycle as it now does.”

Andrew Duguid, senior research scientist for Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, offered a two-fold reason for the growth of pipeline R&D.

“The push is both from the industry being required by pending regulations, i.e. the updates to [the federal rule] 49 CFR 192, also referred to as the Mega Rule, to be more knowledgeable about the material properties for the pipes that are in the ground, and the need to reduce the cost for obtaining that information through technological advances in non-destructive evaluations,” Duguid told Midstream Business. “Or, face the consequence of severe reduction in material property values, i.e. assume low toughness and low strength, if the actual values are not known.”

As well as facing the removal of protective “grandfathered pipeline clauses,” the industry must deal with recategorization of locations to finer definitions of consequence areas, such as adding a medium-consequence area to the low- and high-consequence terminology.

“One cannot separate the effects of regulation, environmental issues and safety on both efficiency and cost. In addition, high-pressure gathering lines, i.e. from deep Marcellus Shale drilling operations, are pending being classified under the same rules as the transmission lines,” Duguid added.

Most pipeline safety technology is developed and deployed using private capital. PHMSA spends about $10 million annually on R&D and capitalizes on public-private partnerships to enhance the impact of these federal funds. While both the federal government and industry play a vital role in the early stages of technology development, industry has been the leader in turning the fundamental research into viable tools for use in the field, he says.

Duguid said sensors will make the greatest impact on pipeline operations over the next five years. He identified several areas of ongoing rapid growth:

  • NDE using smart pigs (anomaly detection and sizing accuracy);
  • NDE using in-the-ditch methods (anomaly sizing using full-field inversion techniques);
  • Leak detection in the field (using drones and AUVs); and
  • Material characterization using NDE methods.

Along with GTI’s Lindsay, Duguid agreed that more clients are requesting cost-effective methods to maintain material characterization of legacy pipe, which is traceable and verifiable for regulatory compliance.

American Gas Association
Lori Traweek, chief operating officer for the Washington, D.C.-based American Gas Association (AGA), which represents over 200 local energy companies, can easily vouch that the job of delivering natural gas to over 71 million customers has always been a highly technical process.

“The design, construction, operation and maintenance of our distribution infrastructure benefits greatly from innovation and those benefits are passed directly to natural gas customers,” she told Midstream Business.

“The driving force behind technological innovation in the natural gas utility space is safety, reliability and operation excellence. As America’s natural gas utilities continue to enhance the safety and efficiency of their operations and systems, we will work together to develop and deploy new technologies and improve upon existing systems and procedures.”

Traweek credited much of the work being accomplished through research consortiums, such as GTI Operations Technology Development, Utilization Technology Development, and Emerging Technology Program; NYSEARCH, and PRCI. Participating companies are entitled to initial access to the research results, but she said the entire industry benefits from the discoveries as technology that emerges from their research becomes widely available.

Some examples of technologies  she said were developed through research and are in use today enhancing safety and operations are:

  • Inline Inspection (ILI) inspection of a pipeline from the interior of the pipe using an inline inspection tool. Also called intelligent or smart pigging;
  • Detection of natural gas emissions using sensors attached to cars, planes and drones or with handheld devices;
  • Improvements made in the strength and longevity of pipeline materials such as steel and plastics;
  • Modern pipeline construction techniques such as robotic welding and coating application; and
  • Directional drilling to minimize impacts to residences and the environment.

Natural gas utilities and their customers will continue to benefit from these technologies and other technologies under development. Utilities and their research partners are also studying:

  • Aerial surveying methods, including the use of Lidar, which measure distance to a target by illuminating the target with pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor;
  • Earthquake and ground movement detection;
  • Technologies to better analyze risk; and
  • Residential methane detectors.

INGAA/INGAA Foundation

The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) and its sister organization, the INGAA Foundation, represent the interests of the North American transmissions pipeline industry from their base in Washington, D.C. Their mission is somewhat different from the AGA, but technological advances are equally vital to both.

Tony Straquadine is the new executive director for the foundation, whose members are service providers for pipeline operators.

“The pipeline industry has been increasingly focused on developing and implementing low-impact, highly reliable solutions for noninvasive assessments of pipeline conditions,” Straquadine told Midstream Business. “For example, pipeline operators have used inline inspection devices as an important pipeline safety tool for many years. These devices travel inside the pipeline to evaluate its condition.  

“ILI technology continues to advance. Improvements in the tools’ ability to travel through pipes now allow many pipeline segments to be internally inspected where it was not possible to do so in the past. ILI providers have begun to combine technologies into single ‘combo’ tools to enable detection of a variety of pipe anomalies in one run,” he explained.

Today’s technological advancements include not only enhanced assessment tools, but also modern methods for analyzing inspection data to identify where remedial actions are needed.

For example, Straquadine said improvements in data storage and computing capability allow sophisticated analyses of ILI data that were not possible in the past. The move is generally toward more detailed, more accurate and more precise data, and better means for processing large amounts of data, leading to the ability to glean more information from inspections.

As do his counterparts, Straquadine added the demand on operators to perform safely, reliably and responsibly is higher than ever. One example is that as the proportion of the country’s electricity generated with natural gas continues to grow, pipeline operators are seeking to utilize inspection methods that do not require pipeline shutdowns. ILI is a great example of noninvasive technology that does not require a pipeline shutdown. 

“The same noninvasive technologies that allow operators to conduct safety inspections, while avoiding pipeline shutdowns, enable companies to avoid removing the natural gas from the pipe. Thus, modern inspection technologies, such as ILI, allow companies to avoid ‘blowdowns’ where natural gas is released to the atmosphere. These modern technologies improve safety but also avoid methane emissions, consistent with INGAA’s methane emissions commitments.”

Operators are already deploying the next generation of pipeline safety technology. However, Straquadine said, updates to pipeline safety regulations are necessary for these modern technologies to have the greatest impact. Several new pipeline safety rulemakings related to gas transmission pipelines are now pending before PHMSA.

He added these proposed regulations provide the “rules of the road” for operators to continue to implement 21st century safety technologies that are more effective, more efficient and less disruptive than past methods.

“PHMSA should continue to work to update its older regulations to reflect today’s technological and engineering capabilities.”

NACE International

The Houston-based National Association of Corrosion Engineers International (NACE) has witnessed tremendous growth in recent years, parallel with the concerns of pipeline operators worldwide regarding the damaging nature of corrosion.

“It seems like today the push for R&D has increased as well as some of the funding methods via consortia and joint ventures,” Jeffrey L. Didas, current NACE International president and senior corrosion engineer at Matcor Inc., told Midstream Business. The industry benefits from these consortia and joint ventures as they can pool the research dollars and get a better product or improved technology. This allows this technology to get into the ditch in a  timelier manner and benefit the industry.”

“R&D had been done at the vendor level, and still is, and self-funded, which has always been a drawback as the vendor had to figure the payback of the R&D vs. the developed technology and how long it would take before they would get a return on the investment,” Didas explained. “For example, $100,000 for research on a new or improved $1,000 meter may take 10 years before the payback for the improved technology hit the books.”

As expected, aging infrastructure—along with ongoing corrosion and materials degradation—seems to be driving the need for new and improved technology.

“Finding corrosion, finding cracking, finding issues in a timelier and more accurate manner is driving several R&D projects,” Didas said. “Others are data analysis, Big Data, for predictive models and risk models. Software for getting the results from all this Big Data in a usable manner and someday in real time. Waiting costs money.”

And what about the role of government?

“A good question,” he replied. “Industry puts in the larger percentage right now as the government has cut back over the past few years. Much depends on where and what type of research. For pipeline integrity and corrosion, and control and safety via, say, the traditional research groups and companies, it tends to run 35% government and 65% industry. That fluctuates somewhat with the project types.”

Like the others, Didas pointed to the ILI industry for creating and modifying existing technology, increasing accuracy for corrosion and cracking, and the ability to obtain more data per run.

“This will keep improving and create improved growth rate calculations and improved predictive software. Non-piggable lines will have more tools to use for performing surveys, finding corrosion and cracking. More and more other industry technologies are being adapted for use on pipelines.

“Getting more accurate data quicker will provide the biggest impact by hopefully finding the problems before a potential incident, allowing the operators to perform the repairs before the failure occurs,” Didas said.

In the world of corrosion prevention, cathodic protection remains the industry’s mantra, and will be well into the future.

“We are always discussing with our customers what they need to make their job easier and more productive or more efficient. We find they want higher-output anodes with a longer life, more efficient installation methods, more use of trenchless technology, more industry standardization and more joint ventures with other pipeline operators to lower costs,” Didas said.

Southwest Research Institute

From San Antonio, Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a leader in flow measurement technology, the story is somewhat different, Terry Grimley, staff engineer at its metering research facility, told Midstream Business.

“Your questions seem to be based on the premise that there is substantial and active R&D of new technologies,” Grimley replied. “From the perspective of flow measurement, I don’t feel that’s necessarily the case. In the midstream sector, the technologies are certainly being refined and improved, and research is required to better understand performance and the effects of operating conditions, etc.

“However, I have not seen the introduction of any breakthrough technologies related to flow measurement for more than 20 years. Of course, the industry is notoriously slow to adapt some of these technologies, so 20-year-old technology may still be new to some,” Grimley said.

One issue this otherwise highly competitive industry has often had to deal with is whether to retain proprietary ownership of its sponsored research, or being willing to share knowledge gained from technological advances.

Opinions differ:

Battelle’s Duguid—“In some ways, industry is being driven to share data just based on cost-reduction. The PRCI has a project to maintain a database of material characteristics. The issue is, sometimes the characteristics are very specific to a pipe supplier, such that, long-seam welds have a lot of variability just within a given location on a single pipe, let alone the variability within a heat of pipe or between heats.

“Some historical pipe vendors are known to have supplied pipe with poor properties. This is the easy part to recognize. The harder part is that one poor-property location within 1,000 miles of good pipe. The key to sharing information is trusting the source of the information be kept anonymous, which will lead to trust of the process and more sharing.”

NACE International’s Didas—“It depends, mostly on the funding for the R&D. Some funding from private industry restricts sharing the technology and keeps it proprietary. This is not new, as if you are investing your money in research, you want to get the benefit. However, some companies do allow the technology to be shared and they may or may not get a royalty back to help offset their investment.

“Most of the time, we do seem to share all or part of the technology with the industry, especially from a joint industry project and/or a government-funded project.”

GTI’s Lindsay—“GTI has been working in the collaborative space for decades, and the industry has been very willing to work together to develop solutions to address the most important challenges. There is great collaboration and sharing in the industry that is fostered by effectively using private funds to leverage public research programs.

“As a result, findings are made public, and ultimately the technology advances find their way into commercial products, adopted best practices, or become the basis for sound regulatory guidance or requirements.”

Maguire Energy Institute’s Bullock—“The entire oil and gas industry shares best practices and innovation better than any other industry in the world. People who switch from tech companies to our industry always marvel at the degree of cooperation that goes on among players. We are one of the few industries where mergers have a high degree of success, thanks to cooperation among the players that goes on every day. I would anticipate this continuing.”

PRCI’s Johnson—“I believe there is a greater desire now in all facets of the industry—operators, service providers, research organizations, trade associations and technical societies—to work to develop the needed tools, processes, standards and personnel to ensure that we continue to have the safest and most efficient pipeline infrastructure. As we continue to develop solutions for the pressing challenges we face, it is important that we be willing to share in areas related to safety and integrity.

Jeffrey Share is a Houston-based Hart Energy contributing editor specializing in midstream energy topics.