A December derailment in North Dakota of a train carrying large amounts of oil renewed calls by government regulators and the public at-large for the drilling industry to double down on its investments related to equipment condition monitoring and predictive preventative maintenance. This will likely apply not only the extraction of oil, but also to efforts related to pipeline crack detection, hauling equipment monitoring and other transportation-related matters.
In December, a train car carrying oil away from the Bakken shale formation collided with another train outside of Fargo, N.D., and exploded, forcing the approximately 2,000 residents of a nearby town to temporarily evacuate. It was the second high-profile derailment of a train carrying oil in 2013 in North America, as 47 people died in July when a train car exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
As oil production in the Bakken shale formation and the oil sand fields of Alberta picks up, more crude is being shipped by rail car across the United States and Canada. Environmental concerns have stalled the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, leading oil companies to seek out alternative means of transportation. CBS News reported that both pipelines and trains have stellar safety ratings, but these kinds of high-profile incidents add to a public perception regarding the state of these transportation methods.
"Any time there is an incident, you have heightened talk and scrutiny on oil transportation," Brigham McCown, a former director of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told Bloomberg. "It will add to the conversation."
How the N.D. train crash may affect pipeline maintenance
As a result of the two train crashes in 2013, the profile of pipelines may rise as railroads become seen as unsafe ways to transport crude oil. However, this does not mean that pipeline operators are off the hook by any stretch of the imagination. As Scanimetrics CEO Steven Slupsky noted in a "pecha kucha" presentation at 2013 nanoConnect, these kinds of incidents only further to sully the otherwise flawless safety records of oil companies. Environmental groups often use these pieces of news to paint the industry as unsafe to the public, even though the statistics say otherwise.
"Though the focus of industry is to keep the oil in the pipeline, the failures are eroding the industry's social license to operate," Slupsky said.
As such, pipeline operators need to do everything they can to guarantee the safety of their operations. While some accidents cannot be avoided, predictive preventative maintenance can go a long way toward making sure that problem areas are addressed before they lead to a devastating oil spill. For example, pipeline crack detection and strain monitoring can tell operators when a part of the pipeline might burst, and allow maintenance professionals to address the problem area.
Trying to manually oversee thousands of miles of infrastructure is next to impossible, but partially automated equipment condition monitoring, when done right, can enable teams to pinpoint potential issues and more efficiently allocate maintenance resource.
These types of solutions will also become increasingly important for railroad operators, as these firms need to monitor thousands of miles of tracks. By measuring the fatigue and strain on railroad tracks, sun kinking, buckling and other problems that can lead to derailments can be avoided. Using strain to monitor fatigue of rail tracks to predict their failure will be more important as the amount of oil transported via rail likely rises even further.