Advanced leak detection systems such as Computational Pipeline Monitoring (CPM) systems are known to be reliable in detecting pipeline leaks to prevent larger events. However, there are still gaps in pipeline leak detection technology that prevent us from cost-effectively detecting a drop of oil reliably and quickly with no false alarms. Leak detection experts and federal regulators met in Cleveland, Ohio on November 16 at the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) Pipeline Safety Research and Development Forum to discuss the current challenges in leak detection and ways the industry can invest in existing and new technologies to close these gaps.

CPM systems are considered the best technology today in the industry for detecting leaks, but outside influences such as instrumentation, communications, pipeline operations, slack and topography can limit their sensitivity and reliability. If users could closely identify these factors, exactly what causes the limitation, research and development can be used to raise the limiting bar and continue to expand the performance of CPM systems. Current sensitivities of CPM systems are mainly affected during running conditions of the pipeline, but CPMs are highly sensitive and reliable during shut-in conditions. Users at the forum considered that a recommended practice for Shut-In Leak Detection Testing on operating pipelines could be very effective in detecting the very small leaks, especially with the technology available today.

While new technologies such as fiber optics leak detection seem promising in detecting very small leaks and even intrusion, the industry has yet to find a way to test and prove this technology in the field. A fluid withdrawal into a tank or vacuum truck fails to provide the same testing scenario like a real leak as it does for a CPM system, and spilling product into the ground is not a viable option. Installing fiber optic onto existing pipelines is extremely expensive and is not an option to retrofit onto the majority of the pipelines today. Users at the forum discussed their preference to see a recommended practice on testing these external systems, but such recommended practice is not possible until a feasible and accurate testing method is developed.

Other industries such as aviation or nuclear power have very rigorous safety plans because they have highly reliable systems. Perhaps there are ideas or technologies in these sectors that can translate over to the pipeline integrity industry to close the gap in our current technology?