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What a Sixty-Five-Year-Old Pipeline in Michigan Can Teach Pipeline Owners and Operators Worldwide

2018-02-13

In Michigan, Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline carries crude and an important lesson; pipeline technology, technical information and standards have come a long way, but knowledgeable qualified professionals are key to asset integrity. Their knowledge and experience is important at every stage of the life of a pipeline and is critical to the safety and longevity.

When the Line 5 pipeline was built in 1953, corrosion engineering education was limited, and training, certifications, standards and corrosion management systems were aspirations of the industry. Through NACE International, an association founded and guided by industry for 75 years, corrosion professionals came together and created the world’s most comprehensive collection of corrosion knowledge, education, training, certifications, standards, and best practices in corrosion management.

Technologies like coatings and cathodic protection (CP) make it possible to extend the life of any pipeline, old or new, but require expertise and a system to ensure protection methods are implemented and performed effectively. While coatings have long been known as the first line of defense against corrosion, no coating lasts forever and, in the pipeline industry, using cathodic protection as a backup for coatings is essential.

Much like we put our trust in trained and knowledgeable healthcare professionals, the integrity of a pipeline should be placed in the hands of qualified professionals. Today, owners and operators have resources like NACE’s publication “Guide to Improving Pipeline Safety by Corrosion Management,” and its SP0169 Standard “Control of External Corrosion on Underground or Submerged Metallic Piping Systems,” but hiring certified coating inspectors and cathodic protection certified experts to manage their assets is the best way to maintain focus on safety and reliability and maneuver through pipeline construction, maintenance, repairs, or replacements.

In Michigan, Line 5 is part of the energy source infrastructure that is vital to the livelihood and lifestyle of the communities it serves so efforts are being taken to maintain it. Data collected through in-line-inspection, visual inspection and cathodic protection readings of the Enbridge pipeline confirmed that there was no metal loss or corrosion, and a hydrotest demonstrated that the pipeline’s safety and integrity was intact. While a reassuring sign for the short-term, a long-term solution is challenging due to limited options such as trying to fix the coatings “in situ” which in this case means underwater, which presents technical challenges and comes with a price tag in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

While the state of Michigan would ideally like to replace the pipeline, today’s regulatory environment may not support that option, and at the same time, using other transportation methods to move the product often poses greater environmental and safety risks than does pipeline transmission.

Any state or country could find itself in a similar predicament, regardless of the age of its infrastructure. Managing an older pipeline requires more resources, expertise, knowledge, and more work than a new pipeline to maintain the same level of safety. In some cases, it may become more difficult to maintain a pipeline than to replace it but, with vigilance even an old pipeline can continue to operate safely. Today there are higher expectations and standards for public safety and the environment; the best way to meet these expectations is to have a corrosion control plan, and professionals on staff with the education, training and expertise in today’s standards, technologies, and corrosion solutions.