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Enhancing visibility: the key to better threat prevention for pipelines

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Hydrocarbon Engineering,

It is easy to associate oil theft, pipeline tapping and damaging leaks with troubled areas such as the Niger Delta, but it is important to remember that attacks on pipelines are an international issue, which operators need to tackle around the world. This point was emphasised again recently with two major incidents reported in the UK and USA.

The first incident was an accidental puncture on the Houston-to-Houma crude oil pipeline, which remained shut for a number of weeks. The second was a malicious attack on a pipeline in Hampshire, UK – with a tapping device found a few hundred metres from an industrial storage unit containing 30 000 litres of stolen diesel fuel.

Not only did both incidents occur in regions where such events may not ordinarily be expected, they both highlighted the core problem with pipeline monitoring. With pipelines often covering hundreds of kilometres they are, quite simply, inherently difficult to manage, monitor and secure reliably at all times.

For security operatives, visibility is obviously the key issue. For example, unauthorised digging can be very dangerous, but at the moment there is very little an operator can do until it is too late and a leak has been caused. It can be difficult to effectively monitor for these sorts of threats along the whole pipeline with existing surveillance techniques.

However, there are solutions now available that can simply and efficiently add a powerful new layer of security to pipeline monitoring operations. In particular Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) is a new tool that can help operators prevent the situation from becoming critical and stop leaks from occurring.

By sending pulses of light along a fibre-optic cable, which runs along the pipeline, DAS can detect vibrations from activity occurring at any point along the pipeline, which are interpreted by the backscatter of reflected light. This information can be used to determine exactly what and where the threat is on the pipeline in real time. Using this information, security professionals can make an informed decision on whether and how a threat needs to be dealt with. This can be a malicious attack such as pipeline tapping or a piece of organised activity that is unsafe and needs to be halted.

In the case of the Ho-Ho pipeline, DAS would have been able to inform the engineering crew that the pipeline was about to be breached and enabled them to immediately contact the team in the field and get them to stop digging.

In the case of oil theft and pipeline tapping DAS can provide a vital additional layer of information, which can constantly monitor for threats in tandem with existing surveillance technologies like CCTV and the experience of the security professionals in situ.

DAS is able to very accurately pinpoint where security breeches are occurring to speed up response times. It can also provide a much more detailed view of exactly what kind of incident is taking place - is it a large group, does it involve heavy machinery - to give operatives in the field much better information with which to make a decision on how they will respond.

DAS is not a silver bullet, nor should it replace existing security infrastructure and procedures. However, there are significant volumes of incidents all over the world and DAS can be a powerful new ally for operators in their efforts to combat either malign or accidental threats to ensure smoother operation of their infrastructure.

Written by Chris Shannon, CEO, Fotech Solutions. Edited by Elizabeth Corner

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