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Digging for root cause of pipeline spills

Researchers at the University of North Dakota found anecdotal evidence that workmanship and inspections were a key to preventing spills from pipelines such as these. Photo courtesy of UND EERC1 / 2
John Harju is vice president for strategic partnerships at the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 2

WILLISTON, N.D. – When researchers looking into pipeline spills talked to people in the field about what causes them, they heard about poor workmanship with few inspections and equipment striking the lines.

But in official reports on those spills, those root causes are rarely mentioned.

Reliable information about what caused pipeline leaks is rarely available, a fact that frustrated researchers at at the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center.

"If we don't learn from our mistakes, how do we learn?" said John Harju, the EERC's vice president for strategic partnerships.

In 2014, North Dakota reported more than 825,000 gallons of oil and more than 2.9 million gallons of saltwater that spilled as a result of pipeline leaks.

A new EERC pipeline study, prepared at the direction of the Legislature, makes 23 recommendations aimed at preventing leaks in gathering pipelines, which transport liquids from wells to processing facilities and are regulated by the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

The recommendations emphasize better pipeline installations, more thorough inspections and facilitating the ability to learn from past spills.

Legislators earlier this year called for better pipeline monitoring after a pipeline leak discovered in January spilled nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater near a Missouri River tributary. The Industrial Commission alleges the pipeline had been leaking for three months before it was discovered.

While a second phase of the EERC's research will look at leak detection technology, the study concludes that more emphasis ought to be placed on proper installation.

"A poorly installed pipe is probably going to leak no matter what, and it doesn't matter what kind of detection system you have on it," Harju said.

The Department of Mineral Resources staff is taking the 158-page report, funded with $1.5 million in state dollars, to guide new rules that will be drafted early next year and are tentatively set to take effect in 2017.

"I think that we should see a definite decrease in the number of incidents as a result of what they recommended," said Director Lynn Helms.

The recommendations come at a time when contractors are facing more pressures to cut costs due to the slowdown in the oil industry, said Kevin Pranis, a spokesman for the Laborers' International Union of North America, which has members who work on North Dakota pipelines.

"There are more pressures to cut costs, and that means often cutting corners," Pranis said.

Anecdotally, researchers heard that poor workmanship, line strikes and lack of inspections were the root causes of many gathering line leaks.

But information available in spill reports did not corroborate that, the study says.

Researchers perceive that the lack of information about what causes pipeline ruptures is because companies often get involved in lawsuits after a big spill, Harju said.

"The manufacturer, presumably the installer and the producer are all pointing fingers at one another and oftentimes there's some kind of settlement and the record is sealed," he said.

The EERC report recommends the state have the authority to participate in the failure analysis and share information about leading causes with the industry.

"Ideally you learn from failures. And I really think that was one of the things that we noted is that we're probably not learning as well as we could from previous failures," Harju said. "It's an opportunity for very substantial improvement."

In addition, the state's spill-reporting information is difficult to analyze and was often missing information, the report said. The EERC recommends that the state streamline how spill data is collected so it can be better analyzed.

The EERC report suggests that the quality of pipeline construction has improved since the early days of Bakken development.

But pipeliners working in North Dakota don't see it that way, Pranis said.

"I think that's just a way of prettying up the reality," Pranis said. "That's not what we've seen."

Members of the Laborers' International Union of North America have raised concerns this year about the quality of some pipeline installations they've seen by non-union contractors, bringing some of their concerns to the Public Service Commission.

"Unfortunately, I think that the quality of work is pretty similar to what it was before," Pranis said. One worker described for Pranis a non-union crew that would fill the pipeline trench at night while inspectors were gone with no regard for rocks that could damage the pipe, Pranis said.

The EERC report recommends that the state consider adopting construction standards similar to those required for federally regulated pipelines. Third-party inspectors could ensure compliance with the standards with further oversight from state pipeline inspectors, the study says.

Overall, the study concludes that pipelines will always be safer and more economical than transporting liquids by truck. For every 10,000 barrels of fluid transported by pipelines in North Dakota, only one barrel is spilled, according to the EERC's analysis of spill data.

"However, the increasing size of the system means that even low incident rates may result in a greater number of spills and attendant volumes in a given year," the study says.

Other recommendations include:

- North Dakota should consider rules that encourage multiple operators on a gathering line system to communicate better.

"If we don't have ready data sharing on that kind of system, that's probably a real opportunity for increasing the length and severity of releases," Harju said.

- The state should work with the industry to catalog older pipelines not currently in the state's database.

- North Dakota should consider adopting regulations on pipeline material selection, as well as rules addressing maintenance and corrosion prevention.

The public will be able to provide input on the rules through a comment period tentatively set for April.

Amy Dalrymple

Amy Dalrymple is a Forum News Service reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. She can be reached at adalrymple@forumcomm.com or (701) 580-6890.

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