More Oil Pipeline Spills Reported by General Public Than Leak Detection Systems

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Remote leak detection systems are often cited by oil companies as one of the first lines of defense against oil spills from pipelines, but a new study by Inside Climate that looks at such spills over the past decade found that these systems aren't really that effective. The study found that since 2002 only five percent of oils spills and leaks were detected by the systems, while 22 percent were reported by the general public.

The technology involved in these remote leak detection systems is a series of sensors and gauges along the length of pipelines. These sensors are constantly feeding information to a control room where special computer software analyzes the data and trained technicians monitor the system, watching for any alerts. The problem is that the pipelines stretch for hundreds of miles below the surface, so even with the systems in place, it's often difficult to located precisely where a leak is coming from.

The Inside Climate study, which looked at 10 years of federal data on oil spills, found that most spills or leaks -- 62 percent -- were detected by employees on the ground at the scene of the accident. These findings have major implications for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which will carry a mixture of heavy tar sands bitumen and light liquid chemicals through aquifers and rivers that provide drinking water, and the thousands of miles of new pipeline set to be built over the next five years.

© Inside Climate

From Inside Climate:

Pipeline specialists interviewed by InsideClimate News said the findings are consistent with what they have observed.

"The reality of the science" is that there are limits to remote leak detection. "That's just the way it is," said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts, Inc., a consulting firm that provides pipeline expertise for government agencies, the industry and other parties. Kuprewicz has worked with TransCanada in the past, but is not involved with the Keystone XL.

Operators can feel pressured to "tell people things they shouldn't tell them because it's not true," Kuprewicz said. While the companies "may not be saying that with the intent of lying, the reality is, it's just real difficult to detect [releases] remotely."

We have the pleasure of reporting on technologies that are helping to protect the planet on a regular basis, but sometimes technologies fall short or cause harm. This study shows that either the leak detection systems need a major overhaul, or there need to be other more reliable solutions in place, like more employees on the ground monitoring conditions along pipelines.

Tags: Oil Spill | Technology