Utilizing Satellite Data to Mitigate Pipeline Failures and Risks

The article was originally written for the November edition of the WorldPipelines Magazine and can be accessed here.

Global Pipelines Landscape

Globally, oil and gas transmission pipelines span a total length of 2.15 million km in 2023 and are projected to grow by over 5% by 2027, equivalent to circling the Earth 53 times. Europe alone accounts for approximately 200 thousand km of gas transmission pipes. These figures specifically refer to transmission pipelines, which form the backbone of the system; the final distribution lines to residential and commercial areas are excluded.

Throughout history, underground construction has been the prevailing choice for oil and gas pipelines, driven by factors like external protection, safety considerations, and aesthetic preferences. While overground pipelines are less common, they are found in specific regions or for particular purposes. In most cases, the underground network lies at a depth of just 1-1.8 meters beneath the surface.

Ageing Infrastructure and Outdated Standards

The longevity of many pipelines is remarkable, with many dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, a period when the global pipeline network expanded rapidly to meet the soaring energy demands of the post-World War II era. Some pipelines even predate this time, resulting in an average pipeline age of approximately 70 years today.

Compounding the ageing issue is the fact that pipelines built on average 70 years ago were designed for the climate conditions, safety and leakage standards of 70 years ago. However, these standards and conditions have since become outdated, and are no longer applicable. 

Gas Transmission Pipelines

Source: The Pipeline Safety Trust data, 2015

Risks and Consequences

The operation of oil and gas transmission pipelines entails inherent risks associated with the potential for unintentional product releases. Oil and gas product releases have traditionally been treated as safety issues due to the risk of explosions and asphyxiation, but increasingly, the environmental impact of unintentional product releases is fast becoming the key risk to be reduced and avoided via Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) programs. 

All pipelines are vulnerable to stresses and strains caused by the movement of the land resulting from ground settlement, soil erosion, nearby excavation or construction and agricultural activities.

In the past decade, external interferences, corrosion, construction defects, and ground movement accounted for 27%, 27%, 16%, and 16% of reported pipeline incidents, respectively. Other factors, such as operator control failure or lightning strikes, can also result in damage to pipeline integrity.

Gas Pipeline Incident

Source: European Gas Pipeline Incident Data Group, 2020

Pipeline accidents are high-impact events that not only cause material and financial losses to the infrastructure owner but also pose significant risks to people and the environment. Pipeline damage can also lead to business interruptions and supply disruptions, particularly critical during the winter season.

With respect to environmental damage, methane (CH4), a major component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) whose presence in the atmosphere contributes to global temperature rises and climate changes. Methane remains in the atmosphere for approximately 12 years and has a warming effect 86 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year period.

Regulation Drives Improved Pipeline Infrastructure Management

Transmission pipeline operators have always implemented measures to minimize the risk of releases and mitigate their consequences. These measures encompass careful pipeline route selection, design, construction, operation, and maintenance, along with the deployment of automated monitoring and control systems. But Net Zero goals are driving major changes in the landscape of both public perception and regulation, which is in turn, fueling investment in improved pipeline infrastructure management on both sides of the Atlantic.

While proposed methane emission reduction regulations in the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) share common elements, variations may be found across the measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) requirements, and leak detection and repair (LDAR) practices.

Looking specifically at the EU, which contributes 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 4-5% of global methane emissions, the number of national policies and measures has been increasing since 2015. 

Over 2,200 policies and measures have been created across the three target sectors of agriculture, waste, and energy, which account for 53%, 26%, and 19% of EU methane emissions, respectively, according to the European Environment Agency.

The EU Methane Strategy and the proposed EU Methane Regulation, define methane emission measurement, reporting and mitigation requirements across these three sectors. 

In May 2023, the EU Parliament adopted amendments to strengthen obligations for methane leak detection and repair in the energy sector. Looking top down, the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) will work globally using satellite technology to monitor big emitters thus helping to inform EU oil and gas importers on the methane footprint of their supplies. Working bottom-up asset owners, including gas transmission and distribution network owners will be required to perform and report on regular LDAR activities at both asset and site levels.

While the debate on what level of methane LDAR activities across the energy sector are both proportionate and implementable is very much ongoing, what is clear is that MEPs are pushing for:

  • Multiple LDAR surveys per year, instead of for example annual surveys
  • The surveying of all assets, as opposed to only medium and higher-pressure assets
  • The use of much much lower leakage thresholds
  • Quicker repair times once a leakage has been detected

So how can asset owners meet the requirements of the future finalized EU Methane Regulation without having to multiply by 10 their current LDAR budgets? Are there new monitoring technologies that asset owners can turn to which don’t themselves have a big carbon footprint?  There is increasing talk of the role that satellites have to play. But what is fact and what is fiction?

Attraction of Satellite-Derived Monitoring for Pipeline Operators

One key advantage lies in their ability to capture images over vast areas, delivering wide coverage. This eliminates the need for physical inspections on-site at every location, saving valuable time and resources. Unlike flight inspections, satellites do not contribute to additional pollution while providing a swift and comprehensive view. 

Moreover, remote monitoring enables surveillance of remote or inaccessible areas, ensuring that the entire network and all regions are effectively monitored, regardless of geographical location or infrastructure limitations. Satellite data can be swiftly collected and analyzed in near real-time, enabling prompt identification and mitigation of detected issues.    

Consistency and standardization of data play a vital role as well. Satellite imagery ensures a consistent and standardized approach to data collection, fostering uniformity in monitoring infrastructure assets. This facilitates data analysis, trend identification, and comparison over time. Consistent data also supports the development of predictive models and aids decision-making processes.

Unlike other techniques that often require training and the installation of specific equipment, satellites offer a more accessible and streamlined approach. Analysis is available within a few clicks, simplifying the monitoring process and reducing operational complexity.

In summary, satellites offer distinct advantages in pipeline monitoring, providing wide coverage, remote accessibility, near real-time data analysis, and consistent data collection. These capabilities revolutionize the monitoring landscape, enhancing efficiency and enabling effective mitigation strategies.

Satellite Technologies for Pipeline Operators

Stepping back and acknowledging that there is a whole host of very successful frontline effort and investment that goes into ensuring that pipelines don’t leak in the first place, let’s look at some of the ways in which satellite data and technologies can be deployed to reduce the risk of pipeline integrity loss and leakage.

  1. Pipeline Routing: Satellite technologies can provide valuable data for pipeline routing, ensuring optimal placement based on factors such as digital elevation, land cover, proximity of encroachment issues, biodiversity loss, and site access. Satellite-based climate and weather data can also help understand the typical climate conditions, soil moisture level, frost, flooding risk and more along the pipeline’s routing.
  2. Monitoring Above-Ground Risks and Changes: Satellite data can be used to monitor above-ground risks and changes along oil and gas pipelines. This includes tracking land and asset motion, habitat changes, land use and land use change, vegetation encroachments, third-party change and risk detection, and flooding events. By continuously monitoring these factors, gas pipeline operators can proactively address potential risks and ensure the ongoing integrity of their infrastructure.
  3. Monitoring Atmospheric Risks and Changes: Satellites equipped with climate and weather sensors can monitor atmospheric risks and changes that may impact gas pipeline operations. This includes tracking lightning strikes, rainfall, wind patterns, humidity levels, snow accumulation, temperature fluctuations, and more. By understanding these current and past atmospheric conditions, operators can optimise their asset upgrade, maintenance and ongoing operations to mitigate potential risks.
  4. Monitoring Below-Ground Risks and Changes: While satellites cannot directly observe below-ground conditions, certain sensors can penetrate the top few centimeters of the soil, providing valuable data on soil moisture and composition. This information is crucial for understanding below-ground risks and changes, such as soil stability, erosion, and other potential impacts which can lead to structural failures in pipelines.

Satellite Technologies for Methane LDAR - Fact or Fiction?

Fact: The International Methane Monitoring Observatory uses open-source and commercial satellite data to search the globe for ‘big’ emitters. 

Fact: GHGSat is currently the global leader in terms of satellite-derived methane-specific emissions monitoring. They offer a pixel resolution of approx 25m and a validated capability to accurately detect emissions of 100 kg/hr or more. There are new commercial satellite data providers working on new sensors which will be able to detect even smaller leaks.

Fiction: Satellites will be able to spot leaks of grams per hour. Despite being passionate about what satellites have to offer, in the short to medium term that level of sensitivity is beyond even a drone-mounted sensor flying 10m off the ground, let alone a plane or satellite-mounted sensor.

Fact: Smart asset owners are still busy evaluating satellite and other novel remote methane monitoring technologies because ultimately methane regulations will have to find a path between driving a drastic reduction in methane emissions and being regulations that are proportionate and implementable. This is likely to involve complex hybrid monitoring approaches that blend data from bottom-up asset measurements with data from top-down site-wide measurements where satellite technologies will have an important role to play.

Experience the transformative power of satellite monitoring, plug in geospatial metrics to your existing GIS and asset management systems and elevate your pipeline infrastructure management to new heights.

Quote W-Pipelines for a 10% discount on your first Spottitt contract here:

Lucy Kennedy
Lucy Kennedy

Spottitt Co-Founder and CEO

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