The Kenya Pipeline Tragedy And Two Worrying Trends For The Oil & Gas World Order

The recent Kenyan pipeline explosion that claimed at least 100 lives in the Lunga Lunga district of the capital Nairobi was not just a wakeup call for the oil and gas business, but a possibly a harbinger of the type of problems that operators will increasingly face in the developing world.

The tragedy unfolded as gasoline ignited as a group of local villagers collected fuel from a rupture in the Kenya Pipeline Company’s Nairobi-Mombasa pipeline.

The huge death toll from this explosion could even surpass that of a similar 2009 incident, in which residents from the town of Molo, north of Nairobi, were killed whilst collecting spilling fuel from an upturned oil tanker.

Pipeline integrity failings

The Lunga Lunga incident highlighted two serious issues, the first of which is pipeline monitoring.

Pipelines provide the most efficient means of transporting liquid or gas-based products from point of origin to the point of distribution. Spanning hundreds, if not thousands of miles both above and below ground, these hydrocarbon highways often pass through long stretches of remote and inhospitable landscape, which, in the past, have been restricted to visual inspection alone.

With the advent of real-time digital pipeline integrity systems, comprehensive and continuous monitoring is now possible in the most inaccessible of environments, ensuring that ground movements, interference and leakages are optimally detected and a response is rapidly mounted.

Had a detection and response framework been adequately fit-for-purpose in the Lunga Lunga case, then then a human and infrastructural tragedy may well have been evaded.


Third Party Interference

The other disquieting trend to rear its head in the wake of the Lunga Lunga accident, is the rise of third party interference.

Whether intentional or accidental, third party interference is the most common cause of serious pipeline failure in the world today, and, as is obvious with the Kenyan explosion, the consequences can be potentially catastrophic.

In many developing nations, pipelines run directly though or parallel to settlements where economic conditions prohibit ready access to fuel. It was reported that once word of the Lunga Lunga leak got out, busloads of people came in from miles around to collect free fuel - quite a draw with a majority of the local populous unemployed, and the average working Kenyan earning little more than $4 a day.

Unfortunately this is a scenario played out all across the world today. The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, for example, has repeatedly alleged that millions of gallons of crude are stolen per year from its pipelines, and recently declared force majeure after the persistent sabotage of its Forcados pipeline in the Niger Delta.

In the seven years between 2002-2009, the giant China Petroleum & Chemical claimed that 47,000 tonnes of oil (~6800 barrels) was lost to criminal syphoning of hydrocarbon from its pipelines an average of 2800 times a year. Exxon’s $3.7 billion Chad-Cameroon pipeline has been attacked multiple times since it came online in 2008, and now many sections are secured and out of bounds.

It seems that as long as monitoring procedures are slipshod and major infrastructure projects continue to bisect communities on the margins of extreme poverty, Lunga Lungas will be repeated the world over and pipeline integrity failings will only ever be reactive.