Detection of interstate liquids pipeline leaks: Feasibility evaluation Page: 7 of 14
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Some 200,000 miles of oil pipelines carry nearly half of the crude oil and petroleum products
(gasoline, kerosene, home heating oils, diesel fuels, and national defense fuels) consumed in the
United States. This system is vital to our nation, its economy, and its national security.")
Recently, the frequency and magnitude of fluid spills from these systems has come under
more intensive federal and state scrutiny. One possible active countermeasure that could be
employed by pipeline companies would be the early detection of leaks while they are still small,
that is, about 0.5 to 5 GPH. This likely would significantly reduce the number of major spills
induced from small-leak erosion of the pipe-wall integrity.
This brief note summarizes how the Brookhaven perfluorocarbon tracer (PFT) technology
can be applied to detecting and pinpointing these small (< 1 GPH) weepage leaks. Discussion will
focus around the Colonial Pipeline Company system, the company with the largest trunkline traffic
(710 billion barrel-miles in 1996) and one which is actively considering new leak-prevention
Transport versus Spill Magnitudes and Frequency of Leaks
Each day the Colonial Pipeline system of 5349 miles (about 2.7% of the nationwide pipeline
lengths) delivers about 80 million gallons of fuels. At peak, the main trunkline from Houston to
New York Harbor transports about 2.5 million GPH of liquid fuels through a 4-foot diameter
pipeline at about 4.8 mph (-115 miles per day). Their total annual product shipments constitute
about 17% of nationwide pipeline deliveries, about twice that of the next largest transporter.
In the 29-year period from 1968 to 1997, a total of 194 spills were reported to the Federal
Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) for an average of 6.7 per year or 1 every year per 800 miles. As a
percentage of Colonial's annual delivery, however, total annual leaked product is significantly less
than 0.001%. The problem is that the magnitude of annual delivery is huge!
In a recent 5-year period (1991-1995), the 64 recorded Colonial spills were equivalent to
12.8 per year or 1 every year per 400 miles. Thus, the number of incidents, although small on a
per-mile basis, appears to be escalating. In that last reported 5-year period, the cost to Colonial in
environmental damages was $22.5 million, not including the value of lost product and downtime.
Finally, in November 1997, Colonial agreed to pay $4 million in damages for a single spill
on March 28, 1993. Although more than 91% of the product was recovered, Colonial had to bear
those costs plus the legal expenses during the more than 4-year settlement study.
Thus, the environmental and consequential financial incentive is in place to promote the
evaluation of new, promising, leak detection and pinpointing processes.
Commercial Pipeline Leak Detection versus PFT Technology
To be responsive to both the environment and the customers' transported product, the
pipeline should have a real-time on-line leak detection/alarming system. Unfortunately, a recent
review of such technologies2) revealed that the best on-line systems are good to no better than 0.2
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Dietz, R.N. & Senum, G.I. Detection of interstate liquids pipeline leaks: Feasibility evaluation, report, October 20, 1998; United States. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc684035/m1/7/: accessed April 22, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.