Research into high-resolution imaging that can detect pipeline corrosion through coatings is underway, thanks to $5.9 million in federal grants for new pipeline integrity management initiatives.
The grants, from the U.S. Department of Transportation, are supporting 17 research projects to develop innovative solutions to improve pipeline safety and protect the environment.
The grants are part of a newly heightened legislative and regulatory focus on pipeline safety, which has come under sharp scrutiny in the wake of recent spills and explosions.
The awards will support the development of research projects that address the challenges of pipeline safety: alternative fuels transportation; the detection, prevention, and characterization of threats and leaks; and pipeline construction quality.
"This administration is constantly seeking new technologies to improve pipeline safety," said DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. "Combining best practices and new technologies is the best strategy for ensuring the safety of our nation's pipeline network."
Among the grant recipients is Jentek Sensors Inc., which is pursuing research into "MWM-Array Characterization of Mechanical Damage and Corrosion."
“The objective of this program is to enhance the MWM-Array imaging capability, especially at very low frequencies, and provide quantitative characterization of mechanical damage and corrosion through coatings/insulation along with higher-resolution capability with coatings removed,” according to a project summary by Jentek.
The company, based in Waltham, MA, develops scanning and sensor technology to detect and monitor material degradation and fatigue cracking.
Jentek hopes the pipeline research will yield “delivery of a practical field deployable tool.” Thus, it says, it is targeting “specific needs defined by DOT, Chevron, BP and pipeline operators such as TransCanada.”
Heightened Focus on Safety
The safety grants come amid recently intensified public and governmental focus on pipeline safety.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration called for tighter federal oversight of oil and gas pipelines.
On Sept. 15, DOT unveiled the “Strengthening Pipeline Safety and Enforcement Act of 2010,” a bill that would increase from $1 million to $2.5 million the maximum fine for the most serious violations involving deaths, injuries, or major environmental harm. It also would add 40 inspection and enforcement personnel over four years.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is directly responsible for inspecting interstate pipelines, but has only 100 inspectors to do it. Oversight of intrastate lines is left to local regulators, who have in most cases left the inspections to utilities.
The release of the DOT proposal coincided with a House Transportation Committee hearing the same day on pipeline safety.
Then, on Tuesday (Sept. 28), in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the same topic, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D., WV) and Frank Lautenberg (D., NJ) introduced a bill that would increase penalties for pipeline safety violations and requires the installation of automatic shut-off valves.
At the same hearing, National Transportation Safety Board chief Deborah Hersman expressed concern that the PHMSA relied too heavily on documents submitted by the companies it regulates, rather than its own on-site verification of practices and procedures.
"We want PHMSA to be on the ground doing the inspections," Hersman said. "We think it's PHMSA's responsibility to trust but verify."
$57M for R&D
PHMSA has invested more than $57 million since 2002 in 161 projects to help provide solutions for detecting pipeline leaks, prevent damage to pipelines, improve the materials used in the construction of pipelines, and improve pipeline system controls, monitoring, and operations.
"PHMSA's Pipeline Safety R&D Program provides near-term solutions to increase the safety, efficiency and reliability of the nation's pipeline system," said PHMSA Administrator Cynthia L. Quarterman.
To view the recent research projects awarded and prior PHMSA research initiatives, visit http://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/rd/.