Can Leak Detection End the Pipeline Impasse?
Written by James Stafford
Pipelines used to be things that were just built without blinking. It is said that there are enough pipelines now in the US to encircle the Earth 25 times with enough left over to also tie a bow around it. Today, getting a pipeline built is not so easy - there are too many environmental concerns and the industry has become highly polarized. But here’s one thing that could bring everyone together: pipeline safety technology. And it’s something we all want, especially for those who live along the thousands of miles of aging pipeline routes that carry hazardous liquids.
Spawned by research that started in space, remote-sensing technology designed to detect dangerous leaks in pipelines has the potential to provide the neutral ground for decisions to be made and consensus to be formed. The clincher: This technology is not only affordable -it saves money and could eventually save the industry.
In an exclusive interview with Oilprice.com, Adrian Banica, founder and CEO of Synodon - the forerunner in leak detection systems - discusses:
• How a technology that started in space has the potential to quell intensifying protests
Interview by James Stafford of Oilprice.com
James Stafford: Now that pipelines are the hottest topic on the oil and gas scene and have found themselves on the frontline of conflict between environmentalists and the industry, high-tech leak detection systems such as Synodon’s remote sensing technology seem to be offering a way out of the chaos. Can you put this into perspective for us?
Adrian Banica: Yes. In North America alone, there are upwards of a million kilometers of transmission pipelines - and this does not even count the gathering and distribution pipelines. What we offer is attractive to both sides in this conflict: environmentalists want it and the industry can afford it.
Methods for inspecting pipelines have existed for many decades. What we’re providing is a better way of doing it. Synodon’s technology offers an accurate and precise method of oil and gas leak detection. This technology detects small leaks before they become big leaks.
James Stafford: In layman’s terms, how does it work?
Adrian Banica: It is relatively simple. Synodon has developed a remote sensing technology that can measure very small ground level concentrations of escaped gas from an aircraft flying overhead. This “realSens” technology is mounted on a helicopter and piloted by GPS over a pipeline.
Think of this gas sensor as a big infrared camera that is particularly adept at detecting very, very small color changes in the infrared spectrum. The color changes that we detect are caused by various gasses that the instrument looks at. Every gas in nature absorbs and colors the infrared light that passes through it in a very specific way. From the shade of the color, we can also infer how much methane or ethane we can see with our instruments. In effect, it’s like a color fingerprint of the gas.
James Stafford: Can you give us a sense of how this technology has evolved into what it is today—essentially the potential tool for bringing environmentalists and industry leaders together over the pipeline issue?
Adrian Banica: Yes. It started in space. Back in the 1990s, I was aware of technology being developed for various space programs, including Canada’s and NASA’s. I was looking for technologies that could solve oil and gas problems, but that were also novel, unique. That is how the whole idea started: It was matching a technology that the Canadian Space Agency funded to develop an instrument that measured carbon monoxide and methane from orbit.
So the idea then was if one can detect methane from space, why couldn’t we adapt that technology to detect methane by flying it on a plane? In 2000, I founded Synodon in order to monetize and commercialize this.
James Stafford: How effective are automated leak detection systems?
Adrian Banica: They are typically only able to detect high level leaks above 1% of the pipeline flow. They measure the volume of the product that passes a sensor (flow measurements) and the pressure in the pipeline--if there is a leak the pressure will be lower downstream from it, among other things. However, as a recent report from the Department of Transportation in the US points out, these systems only detect a leak at best about 40% of the time, irrespective of how big a leak is.
It is also important to differentiate between catastrophic leaks and small leaks. For catastrophic leaks, most pipelines use these flow meters which operate 24/7. But smaller leaks can only be detected by performing an above-ground survey either by foot patrol, vehicle or aircraft. The predominant technologies used would be sampling gas sensors, thermal cameras, laser detection or our remote sensing system.
James Stafford: So this remote sensing technology uses a sort of “fingerprinting” to detect leaks, but we understand that it has much more to offer the industry …
Adrian Banica: Yes. The core offering is the technology we developed for natural gas and liquid hydrocarbon leak detection, but there is a basket of services designed to reduce the overall costs for our clients. During our leak detection surveys, we collect a lot of different types of data such as visual images, thermal images and very, very accurate GPS information. We’ve repackaged all those data sets into new value-added products. We can provide these extra services without incurring additional costs.
For instance, we could offer some of those services for new construction, in which case it would speed up the process of getting all the information required for the necessary regulatory filings.
The most important thing, as I mentioned earlier, is trying to find small leaks before they become large leaks. All our services and all the data we provide are geared towards preventative maintenance. We sought to add services beyond leak protection because all pipeline operators still need to get their other data sets from somewhere. We are consolidating everything they need in a very cost effective and efficient manner.
James Stafford: A late-2012 study on leak detection by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has brought this subject to the forefront. Dr. David Shaw, one of the report’s authors, says that pipeline leaks, ruptures, and spill are “systematically causing more and more property damage…in bad years you have $5 billion in damages due to pipeline-related accidents”. The logic of the study is that pipleline operators could be spending 10 times more on leak detection given what kind of damages they are being awarded now.
Adrian Banica: Yes, the study makes the most valid point here, and that is that leak detection systems represent a bottom line savings, not an expense. For instance, Dr. Shaw has pointed out that pipeline companies would likely be justified in spending $10 million per year for every 400 miles of pipelines because they are already spending more than that on public property damage.
We have demonstrated that we can detect a leak that is less than 1 liter/min or 380 gallons/day. If our technology was deployed every 30 days and the leak were to happen in the middle of this period (on average), the total spill would be 5,700 gallons (380x15 days), which is 50 times smaller than the standard technology daily leak rate. That’s a huge difference.
Another difference is that pipeline operators pay around $12 per hour to have personnel walk the pipeline, and they can only catch leaks that are close enough for them to see.
James Stafford: Could leak detection systems also save lives?
Adrian Banica: Yes. The PHMSA study points out that 44% of these old hazardous liquid pipelines are in High Consequence Areas (HCAs)—which means that peoples’ lives are at risk if they blow up. We’re talking about 44% of over 170,000 miles of these pipelines. On a public platform, this alone should lend a new urgency to the leak detection debate. The point is that remote—or external—sensors can head off a dangerous leak faster than an internal system.
The challenge then is to convince pipeline operators to adopt external technologies that actually detect leaks rather than relying on the inconsistencies of visual detection, which sooner or later would see the pools of oil, but it might be a while.
James Stafford: Is the market ready for this technology?
Adrian Banica: The market is ready, but not necessarily because of leak detection—it’s the overall basket we discussed earlier.
There is a tremendous need in the industry for remote leak detection. But we had to account for budget constraints within our potential clients. We think we’ve developed a technology that’s very capable of providing the information our customers are looking for and doing so at a competitive price they are willing to pay.
We’ve been operating on the North American market for the last 2.5 years. It’s a very large market that has lately been in the eye of the media and the environmentalists. We’re talking about over 55 companies in Canada and almost 700 pipeline operators in the US, where some 100 companies operate or control roughly 80% of the pipeline infrastructure. It is also a regulated market, and regulators require operators to perform some level of leak detection surveys.
James Stafford: Will Keystone XL—or the San Bruno pipeline explosion—have any notable impact on the regulatory environment or the market for remote sensing technology?
Adrian Banica: Personally I don't think that either of these will impact the leak detection practices in the industry. Rather, the driver will be the aging pipelines which will continue to have incidents and spills which the public will not accept.
James Stafford: And how is this playing out on the regulatory scene?
Adrian Banica: Congress passed a new law a year ago on this topic. The US regulators have yet to act on new regulations based on this law, but the trend is indeed there. Pipeline companies are concerned about potential upcoming new regulations and are working with the regulators to try and come up with proactive solutions and preempt their moves. There are a lot of discussions going on in the US on this topic right now and the regulator has proposed a set of new rules which are out for comment and discussion in the industry. It is a slow and drawn out process.
James Stafford: Everyone is waiting for the Obama administration to make a decision on Keystone, and while most analysts seem to think it will be given the final green light, the protest movement shows no sign of letting up. How do you see this playing out?
Adrian Banica: With the governor of Nebraska now approving it, I think the administration has no choice and no excuses for not approving it.
James Stafford: Would regulations governing pipeline safety actually boost support for Keystone XL?
Adrian Banica: Personally, I don't think so. The most vocal opposition for Keystone comes from the side of the environmental movement that does not want to see the pipelines build in order to decrease our overall dependence on oil rather than their concern for spills. So it is a philosophical position based on decreasing CO2 emissions rather than one based on spills in the environment which will not be appeased by regulations.
James Stafford: What about any potential regulatory protection leak detection systems could offer pipeline companies?
Adrian Banica: The benefit to our customers is that they can demonstrate due diligence and that they have employed the best techniques available to ensure pipeline integrity. They will be covered if there is any court action or regulatory action. The value of our data in case something does happen could be quite substantial.
There may be small differences in the regulations with the US being somewhat stricter and tighter than the Canadian regulations. So there are a few more incentives for US based customers to use our service.
James Stafford: Protests continue over the Enbridge pipeline in Vancouver, for instance. How could this play out. Could big pipeline players like Enbridge be able to embrace something like your technology to quell some of those protests?
Adrian Banica: This is a good case in point. Yes they absolutely could, and should. I’m very firm on that answer and I think they are looking at it. Enbridge is a customer of ours already in the United States and they’re very aware of what we offer and do.
James Stafford: So these are early days for commercial viability?
Adrian Banica: These are very early days, and we have just turned the corner from a science concept into something that is commercially realizable. We spent 2011 and 2012 working very hard to penetrate the industry and to convince clients that this is not a science project anymore—this is a genuine commercially viable technology. We are now starting to see the adoption of our technology and services. So I believe we are at the tipping point and by no means do I think that shareholders have missed the boat.
James Stafford: Adrian, thank you for your time. This has been a very interesting discussion and the topic is one we will be following closely over the coming months. Hopefully we will get a chance to talk later in the year to see if any of the developments discussed have come to pass.
Adrian Banica: Absolutely, I'd be delighted to catch up later in the year.
James Stafford: For those interested in learning more about Synodon please take a minute to visit their website: www.synodon.com
Written by James Stafford
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June 10th, 2023
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