Leak Detection Sensors Miss Most Pipeline Spills

Fossil fuels companies often tout the ability of advanced sensor technologies to provide alerts about leaks along oil and natural gas pipelines, but those systems detected only 5% of the spills that occurred between 2002 and July 2012, reports InsideClimateNews.

Put another way, 95% of leaks go undetected by technology that is often held up by oil and natural gas companies to reassure the public about the safety of their projects.

In fact, almost one-quarter of the spills that happened during the timeframe of the investigation were reported by the general public, while 62% were found by employees on the scene of these accidents.

The investigation examined federal data about pipeline spills from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). It looked at 1,763 oil pipeline spills in the 10-year period, but analyzed only the spills where leak detection technologies were in place (about half of that total).

Leak detection systems place sensors along pipelines to measure temperature, pressure, flow rates and other hydraulic data that can reveal a spill has occurred. Data collected by these sensors is communicated to computer control rooms where it is continuously monitored.

The systems are better at discovering bigger spills, those larger than 42,000 gallons. But even then detection rates are only 20% – especially if the leaks are slow ones.

"The fact that 80% of leaks larger than 42,000 gallons go undetected by remote leak systems is a real sign of a problem," Anthony Swift, an attorney who has spent years researching pipeline safety for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told InsideClimateNews.

TransCanada is trying to build public support for its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline by boasting about the 21,000 sensors that it will place along the pipeline to monitor it.

Its systems are more advanced than regulations require, designed to detect spills below 1.5% of the pipeline’s flow, says TransCanada.

That sounds good until you consider the hundreds of thousands of gallons of bitumen the pipeline will carry along its 1,700-mile journey from Canada to the Gulf Coast. A spill involving just 1.5% of its capacity would be 441,000 gallons per day.

Read the full story about the InsideClimate News investigation:

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