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Improving Leak Detection Systems is Vital as Pipelines Get Older

2013 was the year of “Pipeline hysteria”—with some justification.  Over 110,000 barrels were spilled in 544 incidents in 2013, compared to only 45,954 barrels spilled throughout 571 incidents in 2012 (according to the US Department of Transportation).

And that gets environmentalists hopping mad.

"The government seems to be intent on going ahead, with no brakes on the process, in developing energy projects like the Enbridge pipeline, without any concerns for the environmental effects,” pipeline protester Anne-Marie St. Laurent told Vancouver’s Georgia Straight during a Canada-wide anti-pipeline rally held in November.

That’s a bold statement—and a bit inflammatory.  How do we as a society find consensus on this issue? In Canada it literally means tens of millions of dollars a day in lost revenue due to lower than world oil prices.

People have to be willing to listen to facts. But industry can do a better job in explaining how new technology is improving pipeline safety.

A great example in 2013 was a breakthrough by Edmonton-based Synodon Inc. [TSX.V: SYD]. They have the first technology that can fly over pipelines and detect oil leaks.  

“It’s a game changer for the industry,” says Adrian Banica, President and CEO of Synodon. “There is no other airborne technology that can detect oil leaks from the sky the way we can detect.”

Natural gas leaks can cause far less damage if not caught right away. Oil leaks, however, are a different story. Damage from oil leaks can be catastrophic, and damage the credibility of the industry as a whole.

Related article: This Petroleum Indicator Hits a 20-Year Low

Synodon has been flying pipelines to check for natural gas—but usually only once a year. Oil pipelines will be flown a lot more often—quarterly or even monthly

Leak Detection

“Oil leaks must be dealt with immediately no matter how small the leak is. The need to map even the smallest oil leaks is higher.”

“With just a small oil leak, it may not come to the surface, and can seep into the water table and stay for a long time undetected--creating a lot more damage.”

Synodon’s early oil leak detection should significantly curb volumes leaked for their clients. Getting to a leak early could save companies millions in avoided damage and lost petroleum.

“Once we get to demonstrate our technology with a handful of pipeline operators and use them as leverage to show the rest of the industry that this is a best practice, our expectation is that adoption will be more widespread because it’s in everyone’s best interest,” says Banica.

“Not only does it detect leaks, but our flyovers can provide better information on the client’s networks, delivering quality information at an economically attractive cost. We believe the industry will adopt it once we start hitting a critical mass.”

While Synodon has steadily picked up big name clients, many of their customers wish to remain silent about their actions. In a conservative industry with a lot at stake, many clients insist on Synodon leaving their names out of the headlines.

That makes it hard for the industry to crow about the technological advances that are helping make pipelines safer. “My impression is that they almost feel like they’re cornered and battling their way back out, rather than facing the issue head on and declaring what it is they’re doing in order to spin the discussion the other way.

Related article: Good Year For Green

Rather than show it is proactive, the industry is preferring to not draw more attention to itself.  So far this strategy is backfiring, as media coverage grows increasingly negative and the public becomes more withdrawn.

“When you say, ‘no comment,’ it makes you look like you have something to hide,” says Banica. “But they really don’t have anything to hide. Yes there are some limitations to what can be done, and there will be failures occasionally, but they really are trying to get it better.”

US Oil Pipelines

Much of the pipeline infrastructure in use today is 40 to 50 years old—and the older they are, the more likely they are to have failures.


That’s why everyone loses when people actively block proposals to replace older pipelines with new ones.

Older pipelines, although they can be maintained, will never be as good as the new pipelines.  As more product is shipped across the continent to meet demand, there really are only two choices: Increase the pressure and attempt to pump more through old lines, or put the product on trains. And we’re all seeing is not a safer solution at all.

“Newer pipelines use excellent modern technology with a far lower failure rates,” says Banica. “Pipelines put into the ground today are far safer, more advanced, and less prone to failure. We should be encouraging this.”

So, where does that leave us now?

We need some dialogue between industry and its detractors. Industry needs to step up its image by being more proactive. Environmentalists have to listen to facts, and recognize the advances being made in pipeline safety.

In between these two parties flies Synodon, which has the unique ability to make both sides happier and safer.

Now is the time for the public to start encouraging the industry to adopt better methods and to applaud those that do.

By. Geoff Woade

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