Protecting the Future: An Overview of the Pipeline Pigging and ILI Market
Pipeline integrity management remains one of the most important concerns for the energy industry. Over the last two years, pipeline operators have faced a number of challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, market uncertainty and regulatory pressure. However, maintaining the safety and efficiency of energy transportation infrastructure is crucial to meeting demand and protecting the public.
Pigging and inline inspection (ILI) are key aspects to any pipeline integrity management program. Cleaning pigs keep pipeline running efficiently, while ILI tools provide critical data for operators regarding the condition of the pipe itself.
Addressing aging infrastructure is driving today’s pigging and ILI market, according to Matthew Peterson, director of business development at Enduro Pipeline Services Inc.
“North America has developed a world-class pipeline system over many decades that has grown significantly in recent years due to shale plays being developed and produced,” Peterson says. “Meanwhile, most existing pipelines are aged infrastructure developing more and more features like cracks and metal loss that needs to be addressed. Regulations continue to prescribe mandates for how pipelines are managed. This remains a big factor of the overall industry.”
Ryan Sikes, product manager at NDT Global, says that the market was in a recovery year in 2021.
“In 2020, with the pandemic, a lot of things were put on hold,” Sikes says. “Also, with oil prices down, that affected a lot of capex and opex projects. A lot of projects slated for 2020 were shifted into 2021.”
Sikes adds that the outlook for 2022 also looks strong.
“With the added aspect of recovering from 2020, there is increased regulatory pressure from the gas ‘Mega Rule,’ and operators are really looking to get ahead of that and be pre-emptive to address those regulations.”
The Mega Rule refers to a set of sweeping regulations by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) that apply to gas transmission and distribution pipelines. PHMSA passed the first of three phases of the regulation in October 2019. The three main parts of the Mega Rule for gas pipelines include intensifying risk assessment and maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) requirements; expanding integrity management program regulations to gathering lines and other previously non-regulated lines; and increasing reporting requirements and safety regulations.
Compliance to the Mega Rule is helping to drive the pigging and ILI market forward, Sikes says, but not just on the gas side of the pipeline industry.
“The reality is that the gas Mega Rule is setting the stage for hazardous liquids,” Sikes says. “It’s generally expected in the future there’ll be a trickle-down effect of the gas Mega Rule that will impact hazardous liquids, especially the records verification and material validation aspects. A lot of liquids-based operators are watching the gas side and preparing to gear up and address regulatory requirements as they see fit.”
Technology innovation is another factor driving the pigging and ILI market.
Maintaining aging infrastructure and regulatory compliance are the primary factors driving the pipeline pigging and inline inspection (ILI) market in North America.
“Pipeline inspection companies continue their successful track record for providing technology-based solutions,” Peterson says. “This is in response to asset owners’ and operators’ desire to do more with less while focusing on an industry zero-tolerance incident goal. Pipeline integrity management places growing importance on improving data quality and accuracy.”
Sikes agrees, adding that innovation in the market has led to the development of new technology being adopted by operators.
“I think the role of safety and environmental stewardship are going hand-in-hand with the advancement of inspection technology and driving the market forward,” Sikes says. “These new tools are helping to address aging infrastructure, which the industry has been doing for a number of years.”
Thanks to these technology advancements, the pigging and ILI market today is far more advanced compared to a decade ago.
“We have had quantum leaps in inspection technologies today that did not exist a decade ago,” Peterson says. “Additional engineering resources allocated to develop new and emerging technologies for the inspection industry marketplace has provided expanded and improved characterization of pipeline threats. The nomenclature of acronyms associated with pipeline threat identification has increased to assist inspection companies better communicate identified threats. Pipeline owners now have more information at their disposal to be proactive in integrity management.”
Sikes adds that pipeline operators are also more knowledgeable and educated on the need for ILI and integrity management than they were 10 years ago.
“One advancement in recent years is that ILI used to be looked at as a data point for integrity management,” Sikes says. “Operators would get the data point, then go out and repair the issue. That has shifted in the last few years, and now ILI is looked at as a system, not just a tool. Now, companies are looking at all the results from ILI, correlating them and looking at all the insights that it provides to the point where you can design your whole integrity program around ILI data.”
A direct benefit that these improvements in data analysis and processing have led to is a higher probability of detection (POD), Peterson adds.
“Development and refinement of machine learning, using smart algorithms, contributes to data processing speeds and data refinement,” Peterson says. “The ILI industry has improved with advancements in technologies that allows for the detection of anomalies that previously might not have been identifiable with earlier technologies.”
Sikes points to the development of ultrasonic testing (UT) for crack detection as the top innovation in the market in recent years.
“If you look five years ago, the number of crack inspections was less than 10 percent of what is done today, and that is due to a couple different factors,” Sikes says. “One, there have been a couple of incidents in the last eight years or so that identified crack management as a need for the industry. That need led to a significant innovation to develop crack inspection tools, well beyond what they were five years ago.”
Prior to the advent of UT crack inspection technology, the primary method of finding a crack was through hydro-testing, which Sikes says is an expensive and disruptive testing measure. He adds that hydro-testing also has the possibility of worsening a feature that may not fail during testing.
“There has been a lot of work done over last five years to understand crack morphology and the development and improvement of UT crack assessment tools,” Sikes says. “We’ve also had innovations on strain detection technology, which helped us better understand their effects on pipelines. There has been innovation in improving accuracy levels for all ILI tools, where increasing accuracy and resolution over last 10 years has been tenfold.”
Improvements in crack detection tools, Sikes adds, has led to a shift in the pipeline industry regarding hydro-testing.
“Hydro-testing used to be considered an integrity management tool,” Sikes says. “Now, it’s not used as a check of the integrity of the pipeline, but a check of the integrity management program itself. The goal is if you do everything right, if you performed the ILI and managed defects properly, then now it should be able to pass the hydro-test.”
Like most businesses, the pigging and ILI market faced a number of challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and those conditions persist today.
“Inspection companies deal with additional logistics of COVID testing in the field, which will continue for the foreseeable future,” Peterson says. “Access to clients has been restricted and many cases no face-to-face meetings in offices. This important component for sales and marketing communication has been minimized due to the pandemic. Trade shows were put on the sidelines, therefore adversely affecting industry trade associations and technical meetings. Such client interaction is critical to keep dialogue about industry needs and problems pipeline companies are dealing with.”
Additionally, the pandemic forced operators to reduce their budgets, which impacted integrity management programs.
“When we had the big oil price drop, that pushed a lot of operators to slash their budgets by 40 to 50 percent,” Sikes says. “It caused operators to look at risk models with their integrity management and how to manage the risk. It forced operators to make a decision, if they cannot perform the proper integrity management, then they had to reduce throughput.”
Now that companies are increasing throughput to get back to full capacity, Sikes says operators are resuming their integrity management assessments, resulting in the current “recovery” status of the market.
Increased demand for accuracy and improved data analytics are among the trends in the market that Peterson and Sikes are seeing.
Demand for increased accuracy and improved data analytics is leading to advancements in technology to better serve the pipeline industry and aid integrity management.
“We continue to observe clients demand for better POD of pipeline threats to include threats that have been previously difficult to quantify,” Peterson says. “Operators continue to expand the types of pipeline systems that must be included in areas of consequence should failures occur.”
Sikes adds that operators are also looking to use ILI data in more advanced ways.
“They’re working to perform a lot of advanced analytics, machine learning and AI to enhance ILI data,” Sikes says. “There’s been a shift in the industry, and it’s challenging the status quo and going deeper into what the data really means. It’s not changing what the tools do, but it’s changing how the data is interpreted and the level of detail of the information reported.”
The introduction of hydrogen and other renewable forms of gas is a new area of interest for the pipeline pigging and ILI market.
“Hydrogen is probably one of the hottest topics in the pipeline industry,” Sikes says. “Our existing technology is not designed for hydrogen, so we have to develop new technology for assessing hydrogen pipelines. We also have to understand the impacts of hydrogen on existing infrastructure. One thing we do understand is that introducing high levels of hydrogen can cause a number of issues, such as embrittlement and cracking. We have a lot of work to do in understanding those challenges, and then addressing how to address them, especially from the ILI side and how to develop tools to address hydrogen.”
Looking forward, Sikes views the outlook of the pigging and ILI market as strong, but primed for even greater innovations.
“The short-term outlook is great,” Sikes says. “From a long-term perspective, the industry is on the cusp of a generational change. We’re reaching the limits of existing technology, and the long-term challenge is in developing the next generation of technology to assess and monitor features of pipelines. We’re looking at an average age of pipe in the ground as approaching 60 years old. Pipeline operators don’t have a lot of interest in laying new pipe. To extend the lifecycle and manage these assets will require truly understanding their condition, and that means developing and expanding technology and knowhow.”
November December 2021 Print Issue
Brad Kramer | Managing Editor, North American Energy Pipelines
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