Robots Are Wandering Through Oil Pipelines That Have Never Been Inspected
Can robots save Canada's aging pipeline infrastructure?
Robots could change this, but industry observers are skeptical about the possibility of mechanical safety technicians making a positive change in the often reckless oil industry.
Oil pipes are inspected by defect-detecting devices called "smart pigs," named for the ultrasonic or magnetic sensors they carry. Uninspected lines are typically secondary pipes welded on to the main line at pumping stations. These lines are referred to as "unpiggable" because their geometry or small size makes them impossible for smart pigs to traverse.
"There are definitely pipelines in Canada that have not been inspected," said Greg Zinter, manager of pipeline integrity assessment at inspection tech company Applus RTD. Seventy percent of TransCanada's rural pipeline system is made up of small diameter pipe, according to a presentation last year, and at the time only 26 percent of it had been pigged.
The condition of these pipes is essentially unknown, and so they're often considered a safety hazard. In 2014, after a spate of ruptures in TransCanada's pipeline system, Canada's National Energy Board (NEB) ordered the company to reduce the pressure in unpiggable lines deemed to be high risk—based on factors like their proximity to a populated area, and the type of protective coating used on the pipe—to 20 percent of their normal levels.
One company is proposing a possible solution. Diakont, a Russian company with offices in San Diego and Italy, built a robot that makes unpiggable lines piggable by rumbling along on tank-like treads connected to actuators that allow them to morph to the contours of the pipe.
A smart pig is normally carried through a main pipe by the flowing oil or gas itself. They tend not to do so well with 90 degree turns. Diakont's robot can handle these obstacles because its form-fitting treads give it enough traction to pull off Spiderman-level stunts like climbing vertically.
The main issue with going with the flow is that the pigs can't stop to inspect anything that looks sketchy. "The problem is that you're not in control of where you are in the pipe," said Brian Carlson, director of pipeline services for Diakont. "If you see an anomaly, you're essentially just flying past it. Our system is very deliberate in the way it drives through the pipe, so you can stop and analyze anything as you're going through."
The robot carries a video camera, ultrasonic sensors, and a laser scanner that measures the anomalies it detects. The robot sends the data back to HQ in real time through a tethered line. This means that it can do a decent job of inspecting a portion of a pipe, but not a whole line.
Diakont's robot was used last year to inspect a part of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System after a 2011 leak shut down the entire pipeline for days, prompting federal regulators to order the company that manages the pipeline to replace hazardous pipes. According to Carlson, Diakont has customers across the US and Russia, but none in Canada.
"It's not a failsafe"
Even if pipe-inspecting robots make their way to Canada, robo-pigs are not a silver bullet when it comes to pipeline safety, according to former TransCanada engineer and whistleblower Evan Vokes. In 2012, a formal complaint that Vokes filed with the NEB led to his firing from TransCanada, and then a full NEB audit on TransCanada's operations. "It's better than nothing," Vokes said of new pigging technology, "but it's not a failsafe."
Even when used on main lines, pigs have not had a great track record when it comes to actually identifying the defects that could later lead to a disaster. In 2013, Exxon Mobil sent smart pigs down a 60 year old line in Arkansas and found no cracks. The next month, the line ruptured and spilled 5,000 barrels of oil. The cause? Cracks in the pipe.
Numerous instances of pigs not identifying pipe defects have also been recorded in Canada over the years. A 2013 report from pipeline company Kinder Morgan—provided to Motherboard by Vokes and originally obtained through a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) request by pipeline activist David Ellis—found that pigging tech missed defects that later caused a spill. "As you can see," Vokes said, "[pigging] is oversold as a science when it is still a black art."
Despite Diakont's robot's impressive tech specs—Zinter called it a "fully loaded tool"— it does have some serious limitations: the pipe to be inspected has to be shut down and cleaned out before the robot can be sent in, which could cause production slow-downs, and a tethered line means it can only travel so far down a section of pipe.
Questions about the technology's effectiveness aside, the real problem may be the humans in the equation. Nathan Lemphers, who spent four years as the senior policy analyst for the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank, said that the question is not just how to collect data from previously unpiggable pipes. Instead, it's what the oil companies actually do with the information.
"It's not able to necessarily fix problems," Lemphers said. "It's able to identify them and clean the pipe a little bit and relay information at a much faster rate than previous pigs. But there's still the problem of what you do with the data once the anomaly's detected."
Oil companies are not exactly known for swift or effective action when it comes to fixing problems, even if they're potentially hazardous. In May of this year, the NEB issued a safety order to TransCanada for failing to replace a hazardous pipe they first reported in 2012. The company opted to not correct the issue for three years. A 2011 rupture in the 45 year old Rainbow pipeline managed by Plains Midstream Canada near Little Buffalo, Alberta—the largest in more than 30 years—was blamed on a shoddy repair done one year earlier.
"It's not necessarily the technology that's going to save these pipelines or prevent them from spilling," said Lemphers. "It's management making the decisions to make the pipeline actually less risky."
After all, Zinter said, although the undertaking may be difficult and expensive, "anything can be inspected."