Digging into pipeline integrity

VIDEO: TransCanada staff prepare a “smart PIG” for an in-line inspection that scans every inch of the pipeline for possible damage or defects.

When TransCanada asserts that Keystone XL and the Gulf Coast Pipeline will be the safest pipelines ever built, we are not simply tossing out a convenient slogan.

From the selection and testing of the steel at the pipe mill to the ongoing testing and inspection of the pipe during and after construction and then over the life of the pipeline, TransCanada’s care and scrutiny is designed to make sure the pipeline performs as promised. Our commitment to customers, public safety and the environment demands nothing less.

There is no advantage to TransCanada or any energy transportation company to operate assets that are inefficient, compromise public safety or endanger the environment.

“We have an absolutely outstanding safety record. We have consistently invested in pipeline safety and integrity and in personal and occupational safety,” said Vern Meier, TransCanada vice-president of pipeline safety and compliance. “The commitment is there. We’ve done things internally that are clearly leading edge within the industry, and we have validated and verified that what we’re doing is the right thing.”

TransCanada’s commitment to safety and its confidence in our ability to deliver a robust pipeline integrity management program took concrete form in an agreement we signed with the U.S. Department of State during the Keystone XL permitting process.

TransCanada agreed to 57 construction and operating conditions proposed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that no other pipeline has ever faced. By adhering to those conditions – and building safety into every aspect of the Gulf Coast Pipeline’s construction and operation – TransCanada and the industry begin a new era of pipeline safety.

It is at least likely the high standards incorporated in the 57 conditions will become the norm. Until then, the Gulf Coast Pipeline, which is expected to begin service later this year, is in a category of scrutiny and operational excellence without parallel.

One good example: Condition 49, “Anomaly Evaluation and Repair.”

Condition 49 states that the Gulf Coast Project is obligated to inspect the pipeline and address anomalies that previous pipelines only had to report, but not necessarily act upon. TransCanada is using high-resolution instruments to look for indications of potential construction-related damage, however slight. Prior to operating the pipeline, those indicated locations will be investigated.

The practical implications of having higher standards and improved detection are obvious. First, the Gulf Coast Pipeline will have an added measure of safety. Second, the heightened standards for pipeline integrity mean that more reported indications are uncovered for verification and addressed before putting the pipeline in service.

“Inspecting a pipeline after construction is nothing new for TransCanada. We inspect our pipelines after construction to see if any damage might have occurred when the pipeline was being lowered into the ditch or when the ditch was filled back in” says David Penning, manager of the Gulf Coast Pipeline project. “Inspection of the pipeline is not a one-time event. Federal regulation requires us to conduct regularly scheduled inspections to ensure the integrity of the pipeline and must be done for the lifetime of the pipeline.”

What’s different for Keystone XL and the Gulf Coast Pipeline, Penning said, is that although TransCanada already has stringent guidelines around pipeline integrity and safety in place we have committed to incorporate the additional Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Association (PHMSA) 57 special conditions to further ensure integrity of the pipeline

“The federal code requires that pipeline operators look for small dents or shallow scrapes in the coating of the pipe after construction is complete,” he said. “What’s new with Keystone XL and the Gulf Coast Pipeline is that we committed not only to look for imperfections like that, we further agreed to excavate those sites, visually inspect the indication and any other findings and then address the issue.”

After visual inspection, TransCanada is guided by federal regulation as to next steps. That can include removing a section of pipe and replacing it with new pipe. “In some instances, we are required under the PHMSA 57 special conditions to remove an anomaly that would have been normally managed as part of the operator’s integrity management plan as part of the federal code,” Penning said. “It is disappointing that this unprecedented level of precaution for the safety of the public and integrity of the pipeline would be viewed negatively.”

Project opponents have characterized TransCanada’s meticulous attention to safety as an indication that the portions of the Gulf Coast Pipeline currently being inspected are flawed. The point to remember is that TransCanada is implementing an integrity program like none before. To protect the public and its assets, TransCanada is going the extra mile to make sure it has the safest pipeline that technology and high operating standards can deliver.

The facts are plain:

  • The pipe being used in the Gulf Coast Pipeline is not faulty.
  • There is no issue with the safety or integrity of the completed portion of the Gulf Coast Pipeline in East Texas. Before any of our projects go into commercial service, they go through many different kinds of tests and inspections – using some very precise and specialized equipment that can detect minute imperfections.
  • We have already inspected and tested portions of the pipeline using water pressure and remote sensing. We have used ultrasonic or X-ray inspection tools to inspect each weld. The inline inspection to uncover minor imperfections is standard operating procedure. Every inch of pipe in the Gulf Coast Pipeline will undergo the same rigorous inspection procedures.

The Gulf Coast Pipeline project is nearing 80 per cent completion. It is on track to begin flowing crude oil from the storage hub near Cushing, Okla., to the refinery complex near Port Arthur, Texas. But not until TransCanada has done everything it can to ensure the pipeline’s safe and efficient operation.

As the former acting administrator for PHMSA, Brigham McCown, said: “While pipelines are already, by far, the safest and most environmentally friendly method to transport crude oil, the Gulf Coast Pipeline includes 57 special conditions, many of which go above and beyond what the federal government requires. The result is that the Gulf Coast Pipeline provides a greater safety margin than any other pipeline.”