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Are Pipelines Safe?

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

On July 15th, 2020, a crude oil pipeline broke in Cairo, Egypt releasing its content; a passing car ignites the leak leading to a massive fire produced 17 injuries.

The fact that the injuries were people traveling in their cars has promoted a question that always comes every time a pipeline incident occurs, are pipelines safe?

To answer this question, we examined the US Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) statistical data.

To perform a fair review, we studied only the Crude Oil data, as it is the relevant commodity for the Egypt incident.

According to PHMSA, there were 1,380 pipeline crude oil releases between 2010 and 2017. From those only 32 ignite resulting in 10 injuries and 3 fatalities. Nevertheless, for understating the risk profile, those numbers are combined with the approximately 57,279 miles of crude oil millage reported by the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

This exercise showed a release frequency of 3.01 E-03 releases per yr/mile, 6.98E-05 fire per year/mile, 2.18 E-05 injuries per year/miles, and 6.55 E-06 fatalities per year/miles.

If we focus on the fatality risk, we need to compare this number with socially accepted risk criteria. Risk criteria defined by countries with a risk driven regulation like the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia defined a pipeline operations risk criterion of 1E-06 fatalities per year for general public fatalities.

By looking at this value, we can think that pipelines in the US are not safe because the frequency does not comply with the socially accepted risk criteria. However, we need to understand that these are raw data with some degree of uncertainty. Additionally, the fatality frequency value is not that far from the risk criteria; for that reason, implementation of risk controls is possible to reduce the risk value to acceptable levels.

What does a pipeline operator should do to ensure an acceptable risk level?

The first aspect to consider is that the operator needs to have a commitment to safety in all levels of the organization, ensuring a proper safety culture in the organization. This commitment needs to lead to the establishment of a Pipeline Safety Management System (PSMS) that establishes diverse elements for the control of risk. For example, the American Petroleum Institute (API) has established the recommended practice 1173 for a PSMS to guide pipeline operators for developing and maintaining a PSMS that allows reducing the risk to acceptable levels.

In that sense, the real answer to the question is that it depends on the level of compromise the pipeline operator has with safety and risk management.

The PSMS should include diverse risk-based elements that work together to ensure safe operations. There are several references to establish a PSMS. However, the best practice is to establish a risk-based system by integrating the CCPS Risk-Based Process Safety (RBPS) with the particular recommendations of the API RP 1173. The next figure shows an example of this integration shown in the Deming cycle.

Additionally, performing a Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) during the planning phase can aid the implementation of risk control to a particular pipeline project to ensure a general public fatality risk below the defined risk criteria. The QRA allows evaluating the safety of a particular pipeline right of way (ROW) (or route), allowing a ROW that reduces the potential impact to communities and populated areas as highways.

In summary, pipelines can be safe, but to accomplish this objective, the pipeline operators need a Safety and Risk Management commitment. This commitment should include the establishment of a risk-based PSMS with elements tailored to their operations and needs and that work together to reduce the operational risk and ensure business continuity.


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Continuum - Are Pipelines Safe
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