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No 'Silver Bullets' For Pipeline Leak Prevention, According to North Dakota Research

With more production and more miles of gathering pipelines inevitably comes the risk of more leaks, and there is no silver bullet that will make the production and transportation of crude oil leak-free, a soon-to-be-released think tank study in North Dakota has concluded.

Mandated by the state legislature earlier this year (HB 1358), North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) was given the job of completing a scientific review of the construction and leak detection practices of produced water and crude gathering pipelines.

The EERC report's principal author told NGI's Shale Daily that the report is undergoing peer review and will be submitted to state lawmakers Dec. 1.

"There are no silver bullets for preventing all leaks; they happen on pipelines, but we think it happens far less frequently than thousands of trucks running all over trying to transport the same amount of oil," said Jay Almlie, the principal engineer in EERC's mid/downstream oil and gas group.

The task for EERC researchers was to see if there are ways to decrease the volume of leaks of salt water that North Dakota has experienced during the past three or four years.

"I don't think anyone has been terribly surprised by what we have written in the report, including the DMR [state Department of Mineral Resources]," Almlie said.

"The report provides solid scientific backing for some of things that have been known anecdotally already," Almlie said. "We have tried to find factual backing for whatever we have said, and it seems to fall in line with what people have anticipated anyway."

Almlie said the EERC researchers avoided recommending any legislative solutions, although the report includes 19 recommendations to serve as advice to state lawmakers. He said that the report outlines some things that both the state and industry should consider without specifying actions to be taken.

Under HB 1358, the EERC was provided with $1.5 million for its study. The North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC) supported the legislation, and the industry group continues to work with the researchers to provide information.

The report confirms that there have been more leaks on a gross incident basis, Almlie said, but when the statistics are "normalized" to take into consideration production increases (leaks/millions of bbl), the growth in leaks "is fairly flat and comparable to other states," he said.

The occurrence of leaks is not running ahead of the robust production increases North Dakota has experienced in the past five years, and in fact, it could be argued that the leaks are decreasing on a spilled volume/unit-produced basis, he said.

"Pipelines remain the safest and most efficient means of transporting liquids with each barrel safely reaching its destination 99.999% of the time," said an NDPC spokesperson, who added that the industry remains very focused on and committed to improving the remaining 0.001%.

While the industry keeps pursuing new products and technologies, Almlie stressed that there is no clear solution to the problem. "In general, the leak detection systems are not real mature and they are not going to catch every leak," said Almlie, citing recent state-of-the-art pipelines, such as the Nexen pipeline in Canada. "The point is that Nexen did everything it could to apply detection systems, and within a month of opening the pipeline it still experienced a leak.

"The industry is committed to using the best science and technology available to address any incidents that may occur," said the NDPC spokesperson, adding that the council has a task force looking at the best remediation practices and procedures.

State requirements call for leaks to be cleaned up in 30-180 days, and 99% of all cases of leaks have been resolved, the spokesperson said.

Until 2011, gathering pipelines in North Dakota were not regulated, and since it began requiring data DMR has indicated about 4,000 new gathering lines have been added. The current total is about 23,000 miles of gathering pipelines in the state, Almlie said.

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