Whether they are people, places or things, there is nothing that can escape electronic scrutiny in the 21st century, pipelines included. With the right planning, personnel and software systems, both industry and government representatives agree that the tools are in place to maintain control and complete records for the North American, if the not the world's, oil and natural gas pipelines.
It wasn't always this way, and pipeline industry veterans certainly have changed their perspective on "traceability," as industry and regulators call it, since the tragic incidents in San Bruno, CA and elsewhere in recent years. Those incidents highlighted the fact that inadequate recordkeeping practices still exist and may be contributing causes to incidents as a result.
For Metairie, LA-based Project Consulting Services Inc. (PCS), a pioneer in the electronic tracing of pipelines, recent changes in regulatory approaches embrace the company's two-decades-old goal or mission. The newfound emphasis on traceability is the focus that PCS adopted in 1996 when the privately held company invested in the first version of its then groundbreaking software system, C.A.T.S.[R]
"If anything, the increased focus on traceability has allowed us to promote a viable solution to the industry instead of spending most of our time justifying traceability's importance," said PCS's Brett Vogt.
Technology has carried PCS and the industry generally from where the very rudimentary version of C.A.T.S. was in 1996. Regulators and operators alike are more comfortable with where the industry is headed, given more stringent rules from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and a heightened awareness by pipeline operators.
The power of traceability cannot be overstated, particularly when it can help avert disasters like major ones plaguing the industry in recent years. On a recent project involving PCS, a mill identified potential problems with a specific coil of steel, and because C.A.T.S. was used on this project, PCS was able to locate all joints that were produced from that specific coil. The system uncovered multiple joints from the coil that had already been installed. Thus, PCS's query and the tracking system allowed for the defective joints to be removed from the pipeline installation, along with preventing other quarantined joints from being installed.
With today's technology, one hand-held device with an experienced technician can identify any pipe joints that have unresolved quality-control issues.
There is no such thing as business as usual these days. The competition is robust to keep up with technology and field-based operating innovations. Knowledge of pipeline field operations has never been more critical. This was underscored at PHMSA's most recent Research/Development Forum for industry and government representatives to examine the industry's national research challenges.
"PHMSA remains committed to identifying new ways to enhance the safety of the nation's pipelines," said Damon Hill, a Washington, DC-based spokesperson for the agency. "[The agency] encourages development of new technological advances that will assist pipeline operators in improving recordkeeping and reducing damages...