Advances in Protecting Pipelines from Hurricane Damage

Communication among oil and gas operators is critical after a hurricane or other severe weather event. Photo by Getty Images.

For residents of America’s Gulf Coast and East Coast, names of major storms such as Katrina, Rita, Harvey, Ida, and Sandy evoke fearsome memories. These powerful storms also wreaked havoc in the oil and gas industry, leaving damaged levees and pipelines in their wakes.

But with each major storm comes an opportunity for lessons learned regarding issues such as communication among oil and gas operators, protecting existing equipment, and better monitoring and forecasting.

Fast-growing technology and even artificial intelligence (AI) provide hope for even better pipeline protection against such mighty storms in days to come.

Communication After Power Outages

Communication among oil and gas operators is critical after a hurricane or other severe weather event so that cathodic protection (CP) systems can be brought back up safely and efficiently.

Rick Sugden, CP2, and principal engineer with Kiefner and Associates, Inc.’s, Denver, Colorado, USA office—which focuses on failure analysis, in-line inspection analysis, as well as pipeline integrity and consulting services—says long-term power outages as a result of such storms can create havoc once power comes up at different times in different places along pipelines. 

“When you have multiple pipelines owned by multiple operators, they need to coordinate with each other to manage those power loads to prevent interference,” Sugden says. “After big storms of the past such as Hurricane Harvey, when power came on in different sectors, some pipelines were powered up and began to be protected and others were not because they were connected to a different power source that hadn’t come on yet. That generated significant corrosion problems.”

A Category 4 hurricane, Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana in August 2017, causing more than 100 deaths and catastrophic flooding in Houston and throughout Southeast Texas.

Loss of CP, though, is far from the only peril hurricanes can cause to pipelines. 

Damage to Existing Pipelines

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused massive upheaval in New Orleans and damaged some 100 pipelines, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

After Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana in 2021, Reuters reported that stronger hurricanes threatening the U.S. Gulf Coast energy hub elevate the risks of oil spills from damage to subsea pipelines as well as to refineries and oil platforms. 

At that time, the U.S. Coast Guard was investigating nearly 350 reports of spills in and along the Gulf after Hurricane Ida hit, and federal and state agencies were forming a task force to track leaks and address storm damages.

Still, Sugden says leaks make the news because they are anomalies.

“The general public does not have any idea of the amount of money, time, energy, and engineering efforts that go into preventing a pipeline from failure,” he says. “When you see something like this on the news, it’s because it is so rare.”

He notes that a former boss said he spent most of his time repairing leaks 30 or 40 years ago. Today, modern inspection tools allow operators to fix problems before they evolve into leaks.

“The public is not tolerant of leaks anymore, and operators are much more proactive about learning from failures and sharing that industry knowledge to figure out how to prevent the next one.”

Charlie Speed, an independent materials, inspection and corrosion engineer/consultant, says interior pitting of underwater pipelines can withstand much damage without leaking because of modern coatings.

“When you’re talking about physical damage from hurricanes, internal corrosion might have pitting, but it's not going to leak all the way through,” says Speed, who has long experience with Exxon, Mobil, Shell, and others. “Pitting has to go all the way through before it leaks. If it’s at 98%, it’s not going to leak.”

The September 2021 Reuters report was titled “Stronger Storms Test Aging U.S. Offshore Oil Facilities” and cited a March 2021 U.S. Government Accountability Office report on decommissioned pipeline equipment.

“Since the 1960s, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has allowed the offshore oil and gas industry to leave 97% of pipelines (18,000 mi) on the seafloor when no longer in use,” the GAO says. “Pipelines can contain oil or gas if not properly cleaned in decommissioning.”

But it noted that the bureau doesn’t ensure that standards such as cleaning are met, that it doesn’t monitor pipeline condition or movement from currents over time, and that if pipelines pose environmental risks, no clear funding source exists for their removal.

Sugden was a significant contributor to the first edition of American Petroleum Institute (API) Recommended Practice 1133, Managing Hydrotechnical Hazards for Pipelines Located Onshore or Within Coastal Zone Areas. He is an active 10-year member and past chair of the API Pipeline Integrity Subcommittee.

He says the majority of decommissioned pipelines have been emptied and pose no leak threat because operators chose not to leave abandoned pipelines full of product that could leak resulting in multimillion-dollar cleanup costs even before regulations required that they be emptied.

A North Dakota State University report also found that the diameter of a gas pipeline plays a significant role in its susceptibility to natural force damage and subsequent deterioration. 

“A pipeline with a larger diameter is typically more resistant to damage caused by natural forces, such as earthquakes, landslides, and soil erosion, as it has a greater mass and more structural integrity. On the other hand, a pipeline with a smaller diameter may be more vulnerable to damage as it may be more susceptible to deformation and stress due to natural forces.”

AI to Predict Incidents

In the paper, “Predicting Natural Gas Pipeline Failures Caused by Natural Forces: An Artificial Intelligence Classification Approach,” published by Applied Sciences in March 2023, North Dakota State University researchers Bright Awuku, Ying Huang, and Nita Yodo found that only about 3% of overall pipeline incidents were caused by natural forces in 2022. Still, their effects often were debilitating and caused catastrophic failure across the energy industry.

They postulate that the industry will turn to AI and machine learning (ML) to predict pipeline damage and stresses caused by natural forces. It will do so by analyzing features such as pipeline characteristics, environmental conditions, and geographical location.

“AI algorithms can identify patterns and correlations that humans may not be able to detect, allowing for more accurate predictions of pipeline damage,” their report says. “Additionally, AI can be used to optimize pipeline maintenance schedules by predicting when and where pipeline damage is most likely to occur, allowing for proactive maintenance and potentially reducing the likelihood of damage occurring in the first place. Finally, AI approaches can also be used to monitor pipelines in real time, identifying potential damage as soon as it occurs and alerting operators to take appropriate action.”

Sugden sees potential in the use of AI for preventing and mitigating pipeline damage caused by hurricanes, but he says it could be years away.

“I would suggest that we are at the very early stages of utilizing AI,” he says. “We’re not weather forecasters or water modeling experts. There are companies that do that, and we will typically lean on those experts. Although certainly in the next decade, yeah, absolutely I think AI is going to change our industry, just as I think AI is going to change our entire world.” 

Monitoring of CP

Sugden, whose experience also includes time with Marathon Petroleum Corporation and Sinclair Pipeline Company, says real-time monitoring of CP is another game-changer for the industry in protecting pipelines.

“Now a corrosion technician can sit in their office and see immediately when the rectifier goes down, and that’s now expressly permitted by regulation,” he says. “When you’re talking about a weather event, one of the first steps that may happen after an event would be to run an inline inspection tool and evaluate those real time monitoring results.”

An inertial mapping unit can determine if a pipeline has moved underground as a result of river surges and the undermining of riverbanks. Pipeline movement induces stresses to the pipeline that can overwhelm its design capacity and result in an unexpected failure.

“We can actually see the increasing strain in the pipeline steel because the land was moving during the event” he says. “And even though it wasn’t visible to the naked eye, the instruments could actually see and report on it. Technology providers are putting more effort into improving that technology.”

Additionally, Sugden says that at high-risk locations, pipeline operators may utilize strain gauges or other sensing technology that can be installed on or around the pipe to monitor strain or movement. A significant amount of effort and research around technologies such as fiber optics are taking place to monitor critical crossings. 

“I think this is another area where AI will come into play because of its ability to look at sensors and pressure transmitters and immense data collected on the pipeline,” he says.

Despite the strength of major storms over the past decade-plus and the potential for major damage, Sugden says he remains hopeful and optimistic about the oil and gas industry’s ability to protect people, property, and the environment from the harm of storm-caused pipeline damage and impacts of corrosion.

“I am very passionate about protecting people and the environment,” he says. “We’re getting a lot of new ideas coming in to deal with these issues, so I think it’s exciting. The future has a lot of good things in store for us in this industry. These pipelines will be around for a very long time, because everyone needs the energy to be safely moved by these pipelines and we have and need more smart engineers to help us solve these problems to safely move America’s energy.”

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the August 2023 print issue of Materials Performance (MP) Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

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