Pipeline Integrity USA: The San Bruno Effect

Tim Haïdar

In a market that is potentially as volatile as its inflammable products, operators need to have the capability to ensure efficient delivery, asset security, and minimize the risk of collateral loss through corrosion or damage to its interstate pipelines.

Since the birth of the oil and gas industry, pipelines have provided the most efficient means of transporting liquid or gas-based products from point of origin to the point of distribution.

Spanning for thousands of miles and above ground and subsea, these hydrocarbon highways are the arteries that keep the heart of a nation’s economy pumping.

Recent innovation in advanced drilling techniques have allowed for access to tight gas formations in low permeability foundations, making natural gas one of the most abundant resources in North America.

This shale boom, which has been resounding up and down the US since 2009 has put a definite strain on the existing transportation infrastructure, and expansion and upgrade programmes are projected to account for an average of $5bn per year of government spending through 2020.

Pipeline operators must also undertake necessary measures to ensure both worker and public safety as a means to mitigate the headline risk that is currently associated with the expansion of pipeline infrastructure. Several high-profile domestic and international pipeline accidents in the past 18 months have served to underline this.


The San Bruno Effect

In the US there is an average of between 30 to 60 accidents per year, ranging in their gravity.

In the two decades from 1990 to 2009, statistics from the U. S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS), has recorded a yearly average of 282 "significant" events involving failures in pipeline integrity, where significant is defined as incurring:

i) Fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization

ii) $50,000 or more in total costs, measured in 1984 dollars

iii) A highly volatile liquid releases of 5 barrels or more or other liquid releases of 50 barrels or more

iv) Liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion

The OPS has also calculated $273 million worth of damages have been incurred on average per annum due to these significant events and more than 17,800 metric tons of hydrocarbon has been lost.

On September 9th 2010, a 30 inch natural gas pipeline owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) exploded in the San Bruno a suburb of San Francisco, causing eight fatalities, injuring 60 and throwing up a wall of flame that eyewitness attested to being more than 1,000 feet high.

The scope of such a high-profile incident in the US’s most populous state has been a wake-up call for pipeline safety regulations that had not been updated since 2006, and have been a driving force behind the push to reauthorize the Pipeline Safety Act and H.R. 2845, the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 which aims to manage "integrity programmes to 100% of US interstate gas systems by 2030" and impose tougher penalties for pipeline operators that violate pipeline safety laws.