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Gas Pipelines Do the Safety Dance

The industry responds to FERC's new safety regulations.
Fortnightly Magazine - July 15 2003

The act's evaluation component is another challenge. "You can hire companies that will charge millions of dollars to conduct focus groups and do surveys and polling. It is expensive and time consuming," Magnuson says. "Right now that … looks to be our greatest challenge, to find a way to evaluate how effective our programs are and make sure we are not punished."

Accident Prevention

Improvements in safety technology may be the best answer to the public awareness issue.

The Gas Technology Institute (GTI), a nonprofit, Illinois-based research, development, and training organization serving energy markets, is working hard on improving technologies to prevent pipeline accidents.

A new technology to watch for is real-time monitoring of gas transmission pipelines. Because excavating equipment can cause great damage to pipelines, GTI is working to keep such disasters from happening.

Real-time monitoring involves using acoustic-based sensors that can detect third-party contact and notify natural gas pipeline operators in real time. GTI points out that when an excavating tool makes contact with the pipe, it creates acoustic waves that can move over large distances, as well as in the pipe wall and in the gas. So the company developed a system to attach a sensor to the pipe wall, finding they can be placed up to three miles apart under ideal conditions. But in the real world, GTI says it is more realistic to expect to have to place the sensor one mile apart in rural areas and a quarter mile apart in urban areas.

GTI has tested the sensor in the lab and is installing it at two urban sites in New Jersey. It aims to collect data on how urban noise affects the technology. GTI is working on the project with Battelle, an Ohio-based developer of products for government and industry.

A similar ongoing project involves right-of-way encroachment detection, whereby GTI hopes to provide a system to detect construction equipment entering a pipeline right-of-way before it can damage the pipeline. GTI is developing an optical fiber intrusion detection device to detect and sound the alarm when construction equipment is near a natural gas pipeline. But it also wants the system to be able to distinguish between a hazardous and benign encroachment.

GTI is working with the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory to perfect a system whereby a long optical fiber is buried about 2 feet below ground and 2 feet above the pipe. Periodic light pulses would be sent down the optical fiber; in normal circumstances, little light is reflected back to the source. But when construction equipment is present, the ground above the fiber compresses and vibrates, changing the optical properties of the fiber and allowing some light to reflect back to the sources where it is detected. The location of the construction equipment is determined by measuring the time for the reflected light pulse to return. GTI believes the technology will make it possible to monitor a few miles of pipeline from a single location.

Jim Albrecht, GTI spokesman, says the system won't be field-tested for another year. But he expressed confidence