The rise of pipeline theft and the prioritisation of protection. By Ian Deacon

Across Mexico City, it’s becoming a common sight to see scores of people gathering at gas stations, jerrycans to hand. Product is being diverted to tanker trucks under armed guard. The marines have been brought in to provide protection to pipelines and refineries. The country currently finds itself in the grip of a gasoline crisis.

Fuel thieves have grown so prolific, and their siphoning methods so sophisticated, they they’ve forced the shutdowns of some of the nation’s biggest pipelines, setting off the shortages playing out at the fuel pump.

In Mexico fuel theft is a business that is booming. The black market for stolen product is now estimated to be worth $3 billion per year. Criminal gangs often target pipelines in remote areas and sell it on cheaply to rural communities.

On the other side of the border, in the US, a Government Accountability Office report revealed shortfalls in how the Transportation Security Administration protects the nation’s pipeline network. The audit found that the TSA’s guidelines on pipelines are not reflective of the latest best practices on physical or cyber security.

The U.S. is home to some 2.7 million miles of pipelines. The sheer scale of such a network — criss-crossing borders, running through remote regions and taking in tough terrain — makes effective monitoring and policing a challenging problem to solve.

Strengthening security through technology
Whether it’s to combat the product-theft epidemic in Mexico or address pipeline vulnerabilities in the US, the industry is turning to technologies to help them monitor their networks and meet security challenges.

In the case of a potential threat or leak event, pipeline operators need technologies that provide them with an in-depth view into the state of their assets. They need access to reliable and actionable information that allows for real-time decision-making and a rapid rate of response.

One of the most advanced technologies that can be deployed to measure third-party intrusion (TPI) and leak events is distributed acoustic sensing (DAS). This technology allows operators to monitor activity across a pipeline’s entire length, giving them access to unique insights that can inform and accelerate the decision-making process.

It works by converting fibre optic cables, which run alongside a pipeline, into an ecosystem of highly-sensitive, individual vibrational sensors. By harnessing Fotech’s cutting-edge photonics, advanced artificial intelligence and edge computing, DAS can successfully detect, classify and inform on range of events and activities. It can identify, with clarity and confidence, the different types of disturbances that might impact a pipeline and provide operatives with specific alarms to accelerate the decision-making process.

As a result, DAS-based pipeline intrusion detection systems (PIDS) are fast becoming crucial to global pipeline security strategies. This is because these systems provide protection to pipelines that are deployed in harsh environments, densely populated areas and remote locations that have often proved difficult to monitor and secure through traditional methods.

Indeed, traditional security technologies such as aerial surveillance, closed circuit television (CCTV) and ground radars, although still useful as part of a multilayered security solution, have significant limitations. Individually each technology does not have sufficient range to monitor the whole length of the pipeline. They are also relatively simple for criminals to work around as they are usually in sight. In contrast, fully-integrated DAS PIDS can cover the entire length of pipelines – giving a complete real-time view over potentially hundreds of kilometres of pipeline.

Through the use of technology, operators can significantly strengthen their security measures. With PIDS in place, they have access to invaluable intelligence and key insights into the both the location and nature of a potential threat. When it comes to preparing a response — whether it’s a criminal gang attempting to tap a pipe, tunnelling in from afar, or an unexpected excavation activity taking place around the pipeline — operators can react with confidence, whether it be a serious leak event or a potential security threat.

The insights and alerts that DAS can deliver can be monitored from one central control facility, allowing operators to optimise how they direct their incident responses and maximise the efficiency of how they use their other security resources.

Prioritising protection
As oil and gas operators look to deal with intensifying threats to pipelines and refineries, smart technologies are becoming a necessity. As we’ve seen with the incidents of pipeline tapping and fuel theft in Mexico, the need for enhanced security has never been greater because the climate for operators has never been so challenging.

When it comes to pipeline security, what the industry needs is responsive technology that allows it to meet evolving security threats and leak events. By being able to identify the fundamental elements that make up a potential leak or shape a security issue, Fotech’s DAS technology can give operators a much-needed boost in their efforts to protect pipelines and co-ordinate their responses when such incidents occur.

Fotech Solutions
Ian Deacon is Sales & Operations Director at Fotech Solutions. Headquartered in the UK, Fotech Solutions develops Distributed Acoustic Sensor (DAS) solutions for the oil & gas, pipeline, security and smart city markets. Combining talent from the energy sector with leading-edge industrial photonics and technology expertise, Fotech generates unrivalled sensory data that solves business-critical challenges. Fotech’s unique DAS technology and services are changing expectations, optimising traditional processes and creating new opportunities in a range of industries.

For further information please visit: www.fotech.com