Oil pipeline spills found weaknesses in the industry’s best inspection tools, and the federal agency responsible for monitoring safety wants to increase research spending in an effort to spot problems in pipes so users can react to them before they rupture and spill.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued research-and-development grants for $7.8 million this year, higher than in any year since 2008, according to federal data.
Almost 40 percent of the funds go toward projects to improve companies’ ability to find flaws in their pipelines.
The pipeline industry relies heavily on sending robots, called “smart pigs,” through pipes to collect information on potential risks. But the tools have missed dangerous cracks in pipe seams, resulting in several major spills this year.
Two new research projects will target pipelines too narrow to undergo inspection by smart pigs and seek to develop electromagnetic sensors to detect cracks.
Earlier this week, Tesoro Logistics LP said they detected anomalies during an inspection of its 20-year-old North Dakota pipeline just days before the line ruptured and spilled 20,600 barrels of oil onto farmland.
The six-inch pipeline was carrying Bakken oil to the Stampede rail facility outside Columbus, ND, when it ruptured. A farmer harvesting wheat discovered oil spouting from the line Sept. 29.
A “smart pig,” detected anomalies during what Tesoro called routine internal inspections of the pipeline Sept. 10 and 11.
“We were awaiting results of the analysis of that inspection when the leak was reported,” Tesoro spokeswoman Tina Barbee said.