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Removing the guesswork

Published by , Editorial Assistant
World Pipelines,

Aaron Madden, T.D. Williamson, USA, writes about how an algorithm can help ensure an effective emergency response.

Removing the guesswork

When the emergency line tripped and leak detection alarms sounded on a 36 in. crude oil pipeline in a remote region of the United States, some 150 miles from the nearest major city, the emergency intervention and isolation response was so accurate, technically precise and responsive that it allowed the operator to avoid as much as US$1.2 billion in lost revenue. And behind it all was an algorithmic equation.

From GPS to Google search, algorithms are an increasingly potent part of our daily lives. Loosely defined as step-by-step, computational procedures, algorithms help solve problems and accomplish tasks, like getting your car from here to there, or helping you find which seafood restaurant is nearby and open.

In this case, an algorithmic mitigation approach helped the operator and global pipeline solutions provider T.D. Williamson (TDW) strengthen its longstanding emergency response operational readiness (EROR) programme. EROR programmes are intended to ensure the right technology and technicians will be ready and easily mobilised in case of an unplanned event.

Among other features, the operator’s EROR programme strategically positions isolation fittings in storage facilities so they will be onsite within 48 hours of an unplanned event anywhere in the continental US – a considerably faster turnaround compared to the standard lead time. The operator may also elect to store their fleet of STOPPLE® isolation equipment – which covers multiple fitting sizes – at a TDW location.

Knowing that in just two days their isolation fittings would arrive at the worksite and the rest of the equipment would be there soon after, the operator could immediately start sequencing the starting time of each task associated with the repair. Perhaps more importantly, this process returned the pipeline to service quicker.

Insured against the inevitable

The concept of an EROR programme is nothing new; in fact, TDW and the operator have had theirs in place for more than a decade. These arrangements are a little like insurance policies against the inevitable. In our industry, the question isn’t ‘if’ an unplanned event will occur but ‘when’. An EROR programme helps ensure the isolation fittings and equipment (usually owned by the operator but stored and maintained by the service provider at their facilities) will be ready to be placed into service at a moment’s notice. That way, when there’s a loss of containment or service interruption, the operator can react quickly to depressurise the system, minimise product escape, identify and remedy the root cause and resume service.

In the past, optimising the operator’s equipment investment depended largely on experience and instinct – art as much as science. And while that has proven to be a reliable way to prepare for an efficient and effective emergency intervention or isolation, applying an algorithmic mitigation approach takes any guesswork out of the EROR programme development process. It also maximises the operator’s equipment investment and minimises risk exposure.

“The algorithmic approach helps us understand where the total cost of equipment ownership provides the most benefit with regard to reducing exposure, reducing response time and potentially reducing insurance premiums,” Ed Guidry, TDW Senior Director of Intervention and Isolation, stated.

Capitalising on known variables

Planning a successful emergency response centres on two things: considering all the variables, known and unknown, that precede, initiate and occur during an unplanned event; and then identifying and sequencing the actions required to improve the outcome.

These are not small tasks, especially the first. After all, the list of unknowns can be long and daunting. It’s impossible to know exactly when a third party will strike a line, whether today is the day that corrosion will reach its breaking point, if an inspection tool will get stuck in a bend, or whether heavy rainfalls, eroding soil or earthquakes will shift the pipeline enough to degrade containment integrity. And even if those incidents could be predicted with a high level of accuracy, there’d still be no sure way of knowing precisely where they’ll happen.

That may sound foreboding, but the good news is…

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