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We live in a world where unexpected disasters can change the way we live in a heartbeat. Take for instance the terrifying experience residents of San Bruno, CA had Thursday evening when a 62 year old natural gas pipeline exploded killing 4 people, injuring 52 and destroying 37 homes.

The song the remains the same as underfunded and understaffed watchdog agencies try to keep track of an enormous infrastructure. But are the watchdog agencies responsible or are the utility companies that operate them responsible for not adequately inspecting utility assets?

Passing The Gas

After doing a little bit of homework, I was able to uncover the following about natural gas pipelines and their care.

Selected Natural Gas Utility Stats

  • 210 Natural gas pipeline systems
  • 1400 compressor stations
  • 11,000 delivery points, 5,000 receipt points and 1,400 interconnection points
  • 24 hubs
  • 400 underground natural gas storage facilities
  • 2.3 million miles of pipeline
  • 94 pipeline inspectors for Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, or PHMSA
  • Only 7% of pipelines have to be inspected by law and those are in High Consequence Areas (near population centers or natural resources).

“The distribution network also includes measurement and pressure regulators, corrosion control equipment, and valves and meters, all of which must be operated, maintained and upgraded by the local natural gas utility”

Source: American Gas Association

Leading Causes of Gas Utility Accidents

Natural gas accidents are not common, but their accidents draw headlines because they often result in tremendous explosions and damage to the surrounding area is truly devastating. Most accidents are actually the result of excavation issues but an increasing number is because of aging pipeline systems. The following was obtained from the American Gas Association

  • 59% of all accident related problems were excavation related. Excavation can be the result of business or individual work into the soil. Examples include, building roadways, home building and exploration.
  • 41% from corrosion, fires, welding problems (prior repair work) and vehicle related
    • Corrosion – stress related or external. External corrosion often results from pipelines as well as other components being damaged from nature or excavation.
    • Fires – caused by vehicles driving through vapor clouds and igniting the gases.
    • Welding – improper welding during construction and or repair.
    • Vehicle related. A surprising number of accident come from vehicles hitting surface meters and other pipeline assets.

Wikipedia has a good partial listing of accidents and causes for utility pipeline accidents.

Can an EAM System Help Fix Stupid?

Companies or individuals that begin digging without first checking to make sure if there is a buried pipeline nearby is tough to understand which made me think of Ron White’s “You can’t fix stupid” comedy routine. On the other hand, you can make it simpler to keep track of all pipeline assets using an Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) system so that delays in digging are minimal upon request. This may decrease the risk of explosions because asset managers will always know exactly where each pipeline is and can produce the needed documentation at the click of a mouse.

What is even scarier is the thought that the aging natural gas pipelines that carry gas from the source to the high consequence areas may never be inspected. With only 97 pipeline inspectors to cover 2.3 million miles of pipe it seems that the burden of safety has been unfairly placed in the hands of PHMSA. As with several other industries, the lack of inspection capabilitiesplaces the few inspectors in a highly reactive mode. Reactive inspections and maintenance are always going to end up being more costly and in the gas utility industry, far deadlier.

Asset Management is More Than Inspections.

There are numerous technologies available in the marketplace to help identify leaks, unexpected pressure changes or predict failures. Each of these technologies has their advantages and disadvantages. However, in order to plan the lifecycle of an asset, utility companies need additional tools that can record every asset detail such as documents, location, date of purchase, inspection results and track complete work order history.

Managing an asset’s lifecycle also includes the ability to have information available that can help utility managers decide when it is better to repair or replace assets. An EAM system helps accomplish this by combining the work order lifecycle management tools along with asset detail to produce reports that can be used for capital budgeting as well as long term planning.

Using an EAM system Helps Everyone

Local or regional gas companies can pick up part of the safety burden by implementing an EAM system. An EAM solution will not only help save lives and decrease unplanned maintenance but it can also benefit a utilities bottom line in other ways. For example, PG&E stock price fell 8% the day after the San Bruno explosion as a result of liability concerns.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the agency responsible for investigating pipeline accidents, investigators will undoubtedly ask many questions including:

“Has the pipe failed before? Was the explosion a result of faulty pipe fittings, corrosion, or nearby excavation? Another key point will be the maintenance record of pipelines in this area. When was the last leak survey? What do the records show? How well were they kept?”

Source: Stuart Sklar, Attorney

With an EAM system officials would have the answers to these questions. Without them, liability attorneys will lining the streets that have been paved with gold.