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Building it right the first time

Published by , Editorial Assistant
World Pipelines,

Cal Chapman, Chapman Engineering Inc., USA, argues that pipeline integrity management, and especially cathodic protection, is sustainability work.

Building it right the first time

Underground carbon steel pipelines are, and will continue to be, the transportation mode of choice for many crude oil, natural gas, and other petroleum and petrochemical products. Similar underground or submerged metal pipelines are often used, too, for water, wastewater and other liquid or gaseous products. Taking one famous (indeed, iconic) pipeline as a discussion point, the 48 in. nominal diameter (122 cm) crude oil Trans-Alaska pipeline was put into service in August 1977, spanning a total length of 800 miles (1288 km). Now 46 plus years old in terms of active service, the original pipeline design was for 30 years of useful life. It has thus far performed for 50% more years than originally intended. Is this asset being sustained? Is it being operated in a sustainable fashion and, even now, for a long-term service outlook? This certainly seems to be the case.

The cost of corrosion

The pipeline industry over the last 30 years has greatly improved the general principles and practices that encompass asset integrity management. What is the motivation to do so? The first, and obvious motivation, is to avoid the need for complete asset removal and replacement. A study by NACE International (now called ‘Association for Material Protection and Performance [AMPP]’) released in 2016 described that the annual cost of corrosion damage across the globe was in the range of US$2.7 trillion.1 This was true even though some industries were using corrosion control measures quite effectively. If, in 2016, the world’s gross economic product produced was close to US$90 trillion, one could say that all metal infrastructure would need complete replacement every 30 years without significant asset integrity management practices in place. Proper coatings on metal structures is one obvious protection method, which some industries do very well, and others may not do so effectively.

The cost of operation

A big motivation for asset integrity management is, therefore, to properly maintain the asset, thereby avoiding the much larger costs of failure events, shutdowns, major repairs, or even replacement. Often the operator is looking to manage or reduce costs of operation, even as the asset is put into performance at a higher output, or efficiency, and for longer service life.

Other goals might be to improve safety of an operation, or to gain energy efficiency – and in such ways, reduce operating risk or cost, or both. It has sometimes been government regulation that has brought the operational improvements, risk reductions, and improved safety profiles. Pipeline regulations in the US and other jurisdictions have periodically been expanded and tightened, and frequently in response to high-visibility, high-cost accidents occurring.

The Trans-Alaska pipeline project, first publicly proposed around 1970, did not get US Congressional approval for construction until 1973, and only after a major piece of federal legislation was passed. That legislation laid out requirements for complex environmental studies and plans for mitigation of negative effects to caribou herds, to permafrost soils, and water quality protection, among other requirements. Some risk was related to the many river and stream crossings required along the 798 mile (1285 km) route. Thanks to the driving need for high-quality environmental protection over time, this project’s successful execution led to many improvements in pipeline and pump station designs, and in complex construction/installation practices in remote, difficult terrains.

This one amazing pipeline example helps to illustrate several major points. The first is that, once a pipeline is constructed and goes into operation, many parties have an interest in keeping the pipeline operating. The biggest costs are field studies and design, and then the massive capital investment for installation and startup. Once product is flowing, the asset is delivering monetary return on the investment. And because most pipelines serve a long-term purpose, or even get repurposed for a different product after some time goes by, few people want to shut in and abandon the typical large diameter pipeline.

Keeping pipelines healthy

How are pipelines kept healthy over time? Some methods are used to protect the insides of pipes from corrosion, from getting filled up with gunk or water dropout in the wrong places, etc. To control external corrosion, good coatings must first be installed with the asset. Then, cathodic protection must be…

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