The importance of pipeline security and prioritising protection. By Stuart Large

In November, in the village of Buri, Bahrain, a group of criminals detonated a bomb on a main oil pipeline. The incident sparked a furious reaction in the Middle East and led to instant calls for an increase in security. In the same month, a joint venture between Brazil’s Public Ministry and representatives of the Rio, São Paulo and Goiás police, saw 13 people apprehended for affiliations with a criminal organisation suspected of stealing product from Petrobras pipelines. The thieves’ methods ranged from the crude (hijacking tanker trucks) to the sophisticated (identifying weak-points in the company’s 11,000 kilometres of pipelines and siphoning product straight from source).

Oil and gas operators face such serious threats every day, whilst also having to monitor for signs of corrosion and potential leaks that may result in environmental harm. It’s a difficult balancing act, and it’s not getting easier.

Today, there are 3.5 million kilometres (km) of operational pipelines installed globally, with construction work either underway, or planned, on more than 83,000km. The sheer scale of such a network – crisscrossing borders, encompassing remote regions and tough terrains – makes effective policing a challenging problem to solve. As a result, pipelines are vulnerable to an array of criminal acts, including: theft, tampering, sabotage and terrorist activities.

In Brazil, the theft of product from state-owned pipelines is a growing, thriving and lucrative business – with corruption spread far and wide. While operation ‘Clandestine Connection’ was deemed a success – with one million litres of stolen product recovered – investigators estimate that oil theft in Petrobras pipelines may have totalled 30 million litres last year. The police believe the group had around 200 connections in state-owned pipelines, as well as in the police, military and various construction companies.

The issue of product theft from pipelines, as well as other forms of criminal activity, isn’t just contained to Brazil and the Middle East. This year we’ve seen cases in the US, UK, India and Mexico, among others. It’s very much a global issue.

As oil theft and pipeline attacks become more commonplace, operators can benefit from technologies that are accurate and effective, as well as simple to deploy. In the event of a potential threat, it’s imperative that operators have access to reliable and actionable information that allows for real-time decision-making and a rapid response.

To bolster the security of their facilities and pipelines, oil and gas operators should look to adopt the latest in fibre optic sensing technologies. This technology enables operators to monitor activity across a pipeline’s entire length, giving producers access to unique insights that can inform and accelerate the decision-making process. One of the most sophisticated and state-of-the-art technologies offering such insight is Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS).

The technology converts a single fibre optic cable – which is run parallel to the pipeline, or attached directly to the pipe – into a network of highly-sensitive, individual vibrational sensors. The DAS interrogator unit utilises a laser to emit thousands of pulses of light per second into the optical fibre. A small amount of that light is then returned to the unit through the process of Rayleigh backscatter, to be monitored continuously by the interrogator. In doing so, DAS provides an invisible ‘smart barrier’ for the pipeline. As well as enabling continuous monitoring and the detection of potential threats, it also aids in directing operator responses.

The vibrations caused by a disturbance near the pipeline produces changes in the backscatter which are analysed by sophisticated algorithms to paint a comprehensive ‘acoustic picture’ of the disturbance. The DAS system can then identify both what the disturbance is and where on the pipeline it is taking place.

As a result, DAS-based Pipeline Intrusion Detection Systems (PIDS) are becoming integral to pipeline security strategies around the world. These systems allow operators to protect their assets effectively, and is deployed in harsh environments, densely populated areas and remote locations that have often proved difficult to monitor using traditional security measures.

But in order for DAS systems to deliver the best results, they need sufficient range and accuracy. Fotech is addressing these requirements through its DAS-based pipeline solution, LivePIPE II.

LivePIPE II’s dual channel technology delivers a continuous monitoring range of up to 100km from each individual module, with no multiplexing or loss of detection. It’s delivered via a modular design that makes it easy to deploy across great distances – delivering unrivalled protection to pipelines, detecting leak events and threat activities without any sacrifice in quality, reliability or accuracy. The system adds major value to pipeline operators, enabling them to significantly expand and enhance the range and capabilities of their existing pipeline security and monitoring systems.

When it comes to protecting pipeline networks, LivePIPE II complements, rather than replaces, existing security measures. The technology’s capabilities add significant potency to security strategies, and provide operators with invaluable intelligence and insight into identifying the location and the exact nature of potential threats. This then enables them to prepare the appropriate response, depending on whether it is, for example, a small group attempting to tap the pipe, or a larger group tunnelling in from afar, or if there is unexpected excavation activity taking place around the pipeline. It allows operators to respond with confidence, whether it be a serious leak event or a potential security threat.

There are a variety of issues and threats facing oil and gas pipelines – from construction activities to corrosion and product theft – and the need for enhanced security has never been greater. In regard to criminal gangs tapping pipelines, the current climate has never been so challenging for operators.

As we’ve seen with the bombing incident in Bahrain and the Petrobras thefts in Brazil, the methods employed by criminals are increasing in sophistication. While oil and gas operators look to deal with intensifying threats to pipelines, technology vendors need to be responsive to the heightened demands of the industry. Fotech’s LivePIPE II is providing a number of world-first capabilities – pushing the boundaries of what is possible with DAS solutions. In such a challenging environment, advanced systems such as LivePIPE II can provide operators with in-depth coverage and advanced warnings against all manner of security threats and intrusions.

Fotech Solutions
Stuart Large is Sales & Product Line Director at Fotech Solutions. Fotech Solutions was established in 2008 to develop Distributed Acoustic Sensor (DAS) solutions for the oil & gas, pipeline and security markets. Fotech combines talent from the energy sector with leading edge industrial photonics and technology expertise. It works closely with customers, providing clear, real-time data that enhances and accelerates decision-making.

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