... Protecting Underwater Pipelines - North American Energy Pipelines

Protecting Underwater Pipelines

Today’s marine pipeline incident costs an average of $1 million to repair, not counting reputational damage and the incalculable costs of injury or death, making infrastructure protection increasingly important.

Numerous oil and gas companies are addressing the challenge of marine pipeline protection through policies and procedures that can now be augmented by the use of Automatic Identification System (AIS)-based vessel-tracking tools. By enabling companies to proactively monitor and control encroachment on marine pipelines, these tools help pre-empt problems before they occur. Their use is also being extended to include monitoring and preventing encroachment and damage to a broader range of infrastructure including subsea cable and other remote unmanned assets, as well.

Limitations of Earlier Methods

While surveillance flyovers are often used for pipeline monitoring, they are generally only conducted once or twice a week, which is not frequent enough to observe the majority of in-progress threats to the pipeline infrastructure. Plus, because there are very few markers identifying underwater pipelines, there is no way for pilots to precisely identify infrastructure location and/or whether nearby vessels are encroaching and posing the threat of a strike.

/*** Advertisement ***/

A flyover program can identify problems after they have occurred, when there is visible evidence in the form of an oil slick or bubbles. This precludes the opportunity to prevent a strike, but it also makes it difficult to identify a possible responsible vessel or activity associated with the incident.

Inspection and surveillance programs using vessels on the waterway suffer from the inability to be where they need to be when a pipeline strike is imminent. For this reason, pipeline companies rely on public participation in the surveillance and reporting process such as the 811 telephone notification service, which is aimed at individuals and professional excavators to “call before you dig” in order to avoid injury, underground infrastructure damage, and utility service disruptions. It is also used to report pipeline threats in inland and near-shore marine areas.

As helpful as self-reporting systems can be, they still can’t provide the necessary real-time, round-the-clock visibility across the entire pipeline infrastructure. Even when a work area has been declared clear of pipelines, supporting vessel traffic and activity can easily threaten nearby pipelines that weren’t part of the original approved work area. The solution to this gap in information and monitoring capability is to continuously monitor all vessels in every pipeline “zone of interest.” This is an ideal application for AIS-based technology.


AIS-based vessel-tracking systems alert ships when they are directly above a pipeline.

Adding AIS Vessel Position Data

The benefits of using of AIS-based vessel-tracking tools for preventing pipeline strikes have already been demonstrated by the Coastal and Marine Operators (CAMO) group, which launched a pipeline monitoring and protection program in August 2015 in partnership with the Greater LaFourche Port Commission (in Louisiana) and Oceaneering. Oceaneering’s PortVision AIS-based vessel-tracking service is being used to monitor vessel activities in the two charted pipeline corridors north and south of Port Fourchon that pass under its main navigable channel along the Gulf of Mexico.

Vessel traffic is a critical factor in Kinetica’s inspection decision tree.

Vessel traffic is a critical factor in Kinetica’s inspection decision tree.

When the PortVision service shows that a vessel is operating at a speed less than 0.5 knots for three minutes or more within one of these corridors, an addressed, one-time AIS Safety Related Message (also known as message 12) is immediately transmitted directly to the vessel’s wheelhouse that says, “PIPELINE BELOW.” Figure 1 shows an example of a typical safety alert, provided by Rose Point.

To implement vessel-tracking for pipeline encroachment monitoring, the first step is to incorporate all pipeline maps into the vessel-tracking tool (see Figure 2). Based on each specific pipeline segment, alerting parameters and criteria are determined and built into the solution, including vessel speed in or near zones of interest, duration of time spent near the pipeline segment and other factors. Each of these variables can be an indicator of a problem or a threatening situation that is worth scrutinizing.

Early tool deployments have quickly delivered positive results. For instance, within the first few days of pilot testing with a large oil company, the PortVision service transmitted an alert regarding a suspicious vessel in a zone of interest. This set in motion a series of collaborative assessment and decision-making activities between field inspectors and supervisors, the company’s Control Center, Pipeline Operations team and other stakeholders, and the vessel operator and captain. The vessel was instructed to wait for high tide before attempting to get underway, to avoid threatening the pipeline.

Value of Risk Analytics

One of the highest-value uses for AIS data in pipeline and asset protection programs is for optimizing decision-making around inspections, permitting and planning. These applications have been particularly useful for Kinetica Partners LLC, which operates over 1,664 miles of pipe serving producers in and near the Gulf of Mexico.

Kinetica has incorporated the data derived from its AIS-based pipeline monitoring system into their risk-based inspection program, which focuses on assets in water less than 15 ft deep where there is a greater chance of exposed pipeline or navigation hazards. There are about 50 such locations, roughly 90 percent of which are in remote areas that are typically inspected via helicopter at costs averaging $3,000 per flight.

These fly-overs provide only a snapshot in time, and are insufficient for assessing long-term vessel traffic patterns and associated risk. Worse, Kinetica worried that it was often wasting budget on fly-overs where there are very low traffic volumes, and missing opportunities for more frequent inspection of higher-risk locations.

AIS vessel-tracking data has solved these problems, giving Kinetica both the real-time and historical data it needs to make significantly better decisions on resource allocation. In some cases, the company has determined through an integration of AIS data with other data that certain threat risk levels are acceptable and Kinetica could reduce its inspection frequency and vessel notification parameters accordingly, redirecting resources to other uses. Figure 3 shows how AIS data is used in Kinetica’s inspection decision tree.

Historical AIS data has also enabled Kinetica to further analyze the notification parameters that will be most effective for monitoring and managing pipeline threats. In the future, there is the additional opportunity to receive alerts when pipeline segments hit traffic thresholds that could potentially warrant changes to inspection and vessel notification policies. Historical data can also provide insight into specific vessels and fleets that appear to regularly operate near assets, to assist in targeting awareness and prevention efforts.
Analytics based on historical data can also be used for planning purposes. For instance, it can inform decisions about permitting and whether to seek an emergency coastal zone permit for a location with high vessel traffic. Or it can be used to examine notification procedures and determine whether the standard USCG “notice to mariners” will suffice or a different mode of communication should be employed with potentially impacted stakeholders.

The data can also be used to improve decisions about regulatory compliance, training, and where to install new pipeline based on historical vessel traffic patterns. And in the moments after an operator’s pipeline flow monitoring system has reported a pressure drop in a remote area indicative of a major rupture, historical AIS data is one of the first sources of corroborating information in the absence of eyewitnesses to the event. It not only provides a critical tool for confirming the event and identifying the responsible vessel, but also helps the pipeline operator understand prevail traffic patterns and determine how best to plan and launch response activities.

“Without any data, all locations get treated equally in terms of alerting procedures, inspections, educational measures, permitting, incident response, expansion planning and many other aspects of pipeline operation and management,” said Susie Richmond, Kinetica’s manager of pipeline compliance and training. “But with the right, actionable information about real-time and historical vessel traffic throughout our extensive infrastructure, we are now more effectively allocating resources, improving decision-making and doing a significantly better overall job of protecting our pipelines and the areas where we operate them.”

An example of a safety message provided by Rose Point.

An example of a safety message provided by Rose Point.

Emerging Opportunities

In addition to pipeline protection, oil companies are extending the use of AIS-based tools to include monitoring and preventing encroachment and damage to a broader range of infrastructure including unmanned platforms, subsea cables and other sensitive infrastructure. Additionally, AIS is being combined with radar and other data sources to enable the owners of remotely operated fixed structures to establish a virtual “watch team” over multiple remote assets, anywhere in the world.

All pipeline maps are incorporated into the vessel-tracking tool.

All pipeline maps are incorporated into the vessel-tracking tool.

Meanwhile, the need for pipeline safety, alone, continues to grow in importance for oil companies who have hundreds of vessels traversing their pipeline infrastructure each day. Their efforts can now be augmented with AIS-based vessel tracking tools that provide real-time visibility in all areas where encroachment could lead to a pipeline strike, an automated alerting system when a strike may be imminent, and a collaborative platform for assessing risk, determining next steps and coordinating action.

Jason Tieman is director of maritime operations for PortVision, a service of Oceaneering. PortVision and Oceaneering are registered trademarks of Oceaneering International Inc. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.

Tags: , ,