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How can pipelines be more sustainable?

The whole world is moving towards a low-carbon future. The pipeline industry is no different. In this article, we will explore how we can make pipelines more sustainable.

Pipeline infrastructure has been a crucial part of the energy sector for decades. Even as the energy market is shifting towards decarbonisation to meet global net-zero goals, pipelines will still have a vital role in our lives. With the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) next month, we should all be thinking about how to limit the environmental impact of critical infrastructure like pipelines and harness them for greener purposes.

Why pipelines?

We should be looking to make pipelines more sustainable because they are the most efficient method at transporting vast quantities of fluids over large distances. The alternatives – barges, trains, and trucks – rely on people, so they are subject to human error and can’t ensure a constant supply. For example, if you need to transport natural gas across a desert, you’re probably better doing it by pipeline rather than truck. What if the truck breaks down? A pipeline will emit less carbon to transport more natural gas and is the safer option.  

Pipelines ensure a constant supply, cross through remote areas, and are the most efficient method for transporting large quantities of petroleum products, natural gas, or crude oil. We need pipelines so energy companies should be looking for ways to make pipeline operations more sustainable.

So how can they do that? 

Leak Detection

Even though they are the most efficient method to transport resources, pipelines are not without risk. We have probably all seen news stories about pipeline leaks and the damage they can inflict. According to PHMSA, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (US), 267 significant pipeline-related incidents occurred in 2021. Tens of thousands of barrels leaked over the year, putting the environment and people's lives at risk. 

Ageing infrastructure, tightening regulation, increasing legislation, and cybersecurity threats increase the risk of leaks. If a fault, such as a harmful leak, is not detected quickly, it can have devastating environmental, social, and financial consequences. To make their pipelines more sustainable, operators must decrease the risk of leaks and increase their response time. 

Pipeline operators need real-time data and efficient data management to protect their operations and the environment from leaks. Digitalisation is key.

Digital Transformation

Digitalisation is about integrating digital technologies with physical assets. It’s about getting the most out of the data you already have by generating, harvesting, integrating, and analysing. It allows us to see and understand things that were previously too big or interconnected to make sense. Digitalisation allows information to be shared more easily and made more meaningful to a broader range of people.

The pipeline industry is conventionally run from multiple control rooms for SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition), DCS (distributed control system), and others. Historically, the pipeline industry has not been the fastest at adopting new technologies. That is changing. Tightening regulation, stronger environmental requirements, and growing demand for real-time data is prompting an industry-wide digital transformation.   

Centralising data will reduce risk by giving operators fast and easy access to the right data at the right time. Along with increased efficiency, there are several environmental benefits to this: 

Enhanced leak detection

If a pipeline has a leak, you want to know as soon as possible. Digitised operations can provide real-time warnings wherever they are to give operators the best chance at limiting the environmental impact. If your data is digitised, the next step is to harness the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict leaks before they occur. 

Lower carbon footprint

A real-time data feed on a pipeline’s operations could lead to a lower carbon footprint for the pipeline operator. Consider how a company’s carbon footprint will decrease if they no longer need to fly surveillance helicopters regularly along the pipeline or send engineers to remote locations for maintenance checks unless they know they are required.

Optimised operational efficiency

Increased efficiency often links to greater sustainability. For example, if operators have the data to know the optimum time for running their equipment, such as pumps, they can reduce their power usage and lower their carbon emissions.

More efficient maintenance schedules

Pipeline maintenance is often conducted via preventative maintenance, regular and routine maintenance checks to reduce the risk of equipment failure and downtime. Digitalisation and - if you go one step further - data analytics will allow operators to move into the realms of predictive maintenance. 

Predictive maintenance allows operators to be proactive rather than reactive. If you can predict when a failure will happen, you can prevent it at the optimal point to reduce risk and excess wastage while extending asset life.

Pipelines and the Energy Transition 

Beyond thinking about how they can make pipelines more sustainable in general, we should also think about more sustainable uses. 

Energy companies all over are looking to decarbonise to meet global net-zero goals with green technologies such as carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS). CCUS is the process of capturing and storing carbon emitted by industrial processes so that it does not enter the atmosphere.

The energy industry is a significant producer of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas and key contributor to climate change. At COP26 in 2021, it was agreed that global emissions of greenhouse gases must half by 2030 with the goal of reaching net zero in 2050. With energy demand expected to increase, CCUS offers a clear solution.

CCUS captures carbon directly from the atmosphere and transports it for use or storage underground. Pipelines play a critical role in the transportation of the captured carbon. Building or converting pipelines for CCUS is a dramatic way to make pipelines more sustainable. This approach is gaining traction. Energy companies are establishing projects to build or convert pipelines for CCUS all over.

In August 2022, the UK government announced 20 shortlisted projects for the next stage of CCUS development. The North of England currently boasts one of Europe's largest potential carbon dioxide storage facilities.

Pipelines will play a critical role in the energy transition and meeting climate goals, so we should look to make them as sustainable as possible. In this article, we have investigated digitalisation to make operations as efficient as possible. We’ve seen how operators can also go one step further by pivoting towards sustainable uses for their pipelines with new environmental technologies like CCUS.