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After five significant breaches of oil and gas pipelines in the US in January alone, it is evident that the industry is not doing enough to police itself. It must make better use of readily available IT to improve surveillance, inspection, accident prevention, and incident response.

The oil & gas industry should take spills more seriously, and rob opponents of a major argument

Although oil and gas pipelines are arguably safer than other modes of fossil fuels transportation, they are not without risk. Scores of incidents each year cause death, injury, and environmental harm. They expose operators to penalties and spawn negative public images that affect market capitalization.

These consequences are not inevitable. Some incidents can be prevented with earlier detection of warning signs. Others grow rapidly worse because operators don’t learn of them immediately and are slow to respond. With today’s sensors, wireless network capabilities, and software-based automated responses, it is possible to greatly reduce the number of spills and minimize those that cannot be prevented. Call it a cliché, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The recent incidents come as the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project awaits a go or no-go decision by President Obama and upcoming hearings in the US Senate. Keystone XL would carry up to 830,000 barrels of crude oil each day from the oil sands region of Alberta, Canada to Nebraska, US, where it would join with pipeline segments already completed. That throughput is equivalent to roughly 6% of the combined daily oil production of the US and Canada.

Pipeline proponents position the project as economically necessary, for both the crude oil that it will help to deliver to market and the jobs that it will create. Opponents argue that the negative global consequences of fossil fuel dependence are already evident and will only accelerate. Those consequences should be reason enough not to build the pipeline, they say, and health and safety risks and the contamination of air, water, and soil only strengthen their case.

At this stage, it’s anyone’s guess whether Keystone XL will eventually be built. What is certain, however, is that the industry can significantly reduce the number and severity of pipeline incidents by devising, adopting, aggressively executing, and promoting a program that exploits today’s detection and control technologies to their fullest. Such an initiative will rob opponents of at least one of their major arguments and improve the industry’s standing with the public. And, as in so many areas of technology, the costs might seem large but they will pale in comparison to the environmental, financial, legal, and reputational consequences of the incidents that they prevent. It is the responsible thing to do, and the smartest business and political move.



Warren Wilson, Lead Analyst/Energy – Upstream Oil & Gas Technology

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