Pipelines used to be things that were just built without blinking. It is said that there are enough pipelines now in the US to encircle the Earth 25 times with enough left over to also tie a bow around it. Today, getting a pipeline built is not so easy – there are too many environmental concerns and the industry has become highly polarized. But here’s one thing that could bring everyone together: pipeline safety technology. And it’s something we all want, especially for those who live along the thousands of miles of aging pipeline routes that carry hazardous liquids.
Spawned by research that started in space, remote-sensing technology designed to detect dangerous leaks in pipelines has the potential to provide the neutral ground for decisions to be made and consensus to be formed. The clincher: This technology is not only affordable -it saves money and could eventually save the industry.
In an exclusive interview with Oilprice.com, Adrian Banica, founder and CEO of Synodon – the forerunner in leak detection systems – discusses:
• How a technology that started in space has the potential to quell intensifying protests
• Why Keystone XL Pipeline will eventually be a reality – sooner rather than later
• How remote sensing technology can fingerprint pipeline leaks
• How remote sensing technology can find the little leaks before they become big leaks—at no extra cost
• Why North America’s new pipelines aren’t the problem and why the focus should be on aging pipelines that are going to experience a lot more leaks
• How this technology could bring the industry and environmentalists together
• How external leak detection can save lives in high-risk areas
Interview with James Stafford of Oilprice.com
James Stafford: Now that pipelines are the hottest topic on the oil and gas scene and have found themselves on the frontline of conflict between environmentalists and the industry, high-tech leak detection systems such as Synodon’s remote sensing technology seem to be offering a way out of the chaos. Can you put this into perspective for us?
Adrian Banica: Yes. In North America alone, there are upwards of a million kilometers of transmission pipelines – and this does not even count the gathering and distribution pipelines. What we offer is attractive to both sides in this conflict: environmentalists want it and the industry can afford it.
Methods for inspecting pipelines have existed for many decades. What we’re providing is a better way of doing it. Synodon’s technology offers an accurate and precise method of oil and gas leak detection. This technology detects small leaks before they become big leaks.
James Stafford: In layman’s terms, how does it work?
Adrian Banica: It is relatively simple. Synodon has developed a remote sensing technology that can measure very small ground level concentrations of escaped gas from an aircraft flying overhead. This “realSens” technology is mounted on a helicopter and piloted by GPS over a pipeline.
Think of this gas sensor as a big infrared camera that is particularly adept at detecting very, very small color changes in the infrared spectrum. The color changes that we detect are caused by various gasses that the instrument looks at. Every gas in nature absorbs and colors the infrared light that passes through it in a very specific way. From the shade of the color, we can also infer how much methane or ethane we can see with our instruments. In effect, it’s like a color fingerprint of the gas.
James Stafford: Can you give us a sense of how this technology has evolved into what it is today—essentially the potential tool for bringing environmentalists and industry leaders together over the pipeline issue?
Adrian Banica: Yes. It started in space. Back in the 1990s, I was aware of technology being developed for various space programs, including Canada’s and NASA’s. I was looking for technologies that could solve oil and gas problems, but that were also novel, unique. That is how the whole idea started: It was matching a technology that the Canadian Space Agency funded to develop an instrument that measured carbon monoxide and methane from orbit.
So the idea then was if one can detect methane from space, why couldn’t we adapt that technology to detect methane by flying it on a plane? In 2000, I founded Synodon in order to monetize and commercialize this.
James Stafford: How effective are automated leak detection systems?
Adrian Banica: They are typically only able to detect high level leaks above 1% of the pipeline flow. They measure the volume of the product that passes a sensor (flow measurements) and the pressure in the pipeline–if there is a leak the pressure will be lower downstream from it, among other things. However, as a recent report from the Department of Transportation in the US points out, these systems only detect a leak at best about 40% of the time, irrespective of how big a leak is.
It is also important to differentiate between catastrophic leaks and small leaks. For catastrophic leaks, most pipelines use these flow meters which operate 24/7. But smaller leaks can only be detected by performing an above-ground survey either by foot patrol, vehicle or aircraft. The predominant technologies used would be sampling gas sensors, thermal cameras, laser detection or our remote sensing system.
James Stafford: So this remote sensing technology uses a sort of “fingerprinting” to detect leaks, but we understand that it has much more to offer the industry …
Adrian Banica: Yes. The core offering is the technology we developed for natural gas and liquid hydrocarbon leak detection, but there is a basket of services designed to reduce the overall costs for our clients. During our leak detection surveys, we collect a lot of different types of data such as visual images, thermal images and very, very accurate GPS information. We’ve repackaged all those data sets into new value-added products. We can provide these extra services without incurring additional costs.
For instance, we could offer some of those services for new construction, in which case it would speed up the process of getting all the information required for the necessary regulatory filings.
The most important thing, as I mentioned earlier, is trying to find small leaks before they become large leaks. All our services and all the data we provide are geared towards preventative maintenance. We sought to add services beyond leak protection because all pipeline operators still need to get their other data sets from somewhere. We are consolidating everything they need in a very cost effective and efficient manner.
James Stafford: A late-2012 study on leak detection by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has brought this subject to the forefront. Dr. David Shaw, one of the report’s authors, says that pipeline leaks, ruptures, and spill are “systematically causing more and more property damage…in bad years you have $5 billion in damages due to pipeline-related accidents”. The logic of the study is that pipleline operators could be spending 10 times more on leak detection given what kind of damages they are being awarded now.
Adrian Banica: Yes, the study makes the most valid point here, and that is that leak detection systems represent a bottom line savings, not an expense. For instance, Dr. Shaw has pointed out that pipeline companies would likely be justified in spending $10 million per year for every 400 miles of pipelines because they are