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Gas Pipelines Do the Safety Dance
RSPA to consider the amount of pressure the pipeline operates under, Magnuson says.
Companies that specialize in pipeline inspections are gearing up for the expected increase in demand as a result of the act. For example, Baker Hughes, a Houston-based gas- and oil-field services company, in late May acquired Cornerstone Pipeline Inspection Group, a privately held company that owns a fleet of "smart pigs" for making such inspections. It used to be that the so-called smart pigs, which are made of plastic and move through the pipelines, were useful only in cleaning the pipes, but now they are used to detect corrosion.
But Baker Hughes made the acquisition to improve its technology. Its existing pipeline management group was based on using tethered pigs. "This will be the first time we have added a 'smart,' or free-swimming, pig to our capability," says Kyle J. Leak, spokesman for Baker Hughes. "The Pipeline Safety Act will increase demand significantly, so whatever the supply was before, its relation to the demand has changed as a result of this new legislation," Leak says. "We're trying to put together as robust a platform as we can to meet that demand," he added.
But Magnuson points to a unique challenge for gas distribution utilities: Many local distribution company pipelines are not a straight shot, as are interstate pipelines; instead, they go around a lot more corners. "That means the internal inspection devices that Congress was so excited about-smart pigs and hydrostatic testing, [and] all the rest-really aren't very practical for numerous reasons on many of our pipelines," she says. "Not to mention they generally require you to shut down a portion of your pipeline to perform the test, which means no gas service. Some places … have parallel pipelines that can take over some of the load, but that is not necessarily true everywhere."
The Pipeline Safety Act also requires implementation of public awareness programs. But Magnuson says the AGA expected that, in light of the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) recommendations that followed the El Paso Pipeline and the Bellingham incidents. She says the affected local communities expressed concern about being unaware of the pipelines' locations. So the AGA looked at a model the American Petroleum Institute (API) had developed years ago on pipeline communications and joined with the American Public Gas Association (APGA), Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), and others in forming a task force to write voluntary industry guidelines and standards.
The audience for the guidelines includes elected officials and firefighters, in addition to the general public. Magnuson says the challenge was to come up with a template that would meet a big liquid gas pipeline's needs as well as those of a small municipal utility.
But the safety act presented a bigger challenge: meeting the act's Dec. 17, 2003, deadline for a formal public awareness program. "All of a sudden it went from being a voluntary industry consensus effort, to companies … [having to look] at a deadline and … comply with getting formal programs in place," Magnuson says.