iPIPE: Taking a bite out of leaks

UND’s EERC uses ‘Shark Tank’-like approach in search of emergent technologies to reduce pipeline spills

iPIPE from EERC

There are 27,000 miles of pipeline in North Dakota, most of them “gathering pipelines” that bring oil to a central spot. iPIPE, the Intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program, a consortium of oil companies and the EERC, is a program that selects and tests new technology to detect and prevent pipeline links. Image courtesy of EERC.

They call it Shark Tank.

But instead of inking new business deals, this Shark Tank funds and tests new ways to detect and prevent pipeline leaks and oil spills.

“New advances could help better prevent or detect spills,” said Jay Almlie, a principal engineer with the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center.

But how do you know which emerging technologies will work best? Or if they will work at all?

Enter the EERC and “iPIPE,” the Intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program, a consortium of oil companies, which uses the Shark Tank television show model, where entrepreneurs pitch ideas to investors, to discover and test promising new pipeline technology.

There are 27,000 miles of pipeline in North Dakota, most of them “gathering pipelines” that bring oil to a central spot. Although the rate of pipeline spills has remained fairly constant since 2013 and is comparable to other major oil-producing states, there is increasing scrutiny on pipelines.

“North Dakota has tight regulations on reporting oil leaks and spills,” said Almlie. “When every leak is reported, it hits the news a lot.” And, he added, spills can cost millions of dollars to mitigate.

Jay Almlie and iPipe from EERC

Jay Almlie (standing left), principal engineer with UND’s EERC, said that as part of the iPIPE program, EERC monitors emerging technologies and companies. Once a year, they invite promising companies to present their innovations to oil pipeline operators and EERC scientists in a format modeled after the hit TV show, “Shark Tank.” Image courtesy of Kari Suedel, EERC.

Response to challenge

The iPIPE program, which selects and tests new technology to detect and prevent pipeline leaks, formed in response to a challenge from North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Jay Almlie

Jay Almlie

“Last year, on May 23, Gov. Burgum called all pipeline operators to Bismarck for a meeting,” Almlie said. About 75 representatives from pipeline industry were there, as well as regulators and EERC staff.

“The governor said that we have a problem,” Almlie said. “North Dakota has been labeled as a “spills state.” Burgum challenged industry to think outside the box, and stated that his preference was to not create new rules to drive industry, but to let them fix their own problem.”

Three oil companies initially approached the EERC and asked the Center to help meet the challenge.

“We have an established reputation for excellence in applied research,” said Almlie, adding that industry often doesn’t have the expertise to evaluate and test new technology.

That’s right up EERC’s alley.

Goodnight Midstream, Hess, ONEOK, Equinor (formerly StatOil), Oasis, Midstream Partners and Andeavor (formerly Tesoro) formed iPIPE with the EERC.

iPIPE from EERC

As part of the iPIPE program, EERC works with pipeline operators to install new technologies at a test site, then evaluates how well the tools detect leaks. Technology can include sensors, “smart pigs,” radar-based leak detection, UAS and more. Image courtesy of EERC.

Ideas on the line

Almlie said that as part of the program, EERC monitors emerging technologies and companies. Once a year, they invite promising companies to present their innovations to oil pipeline operators and EERC scientists. Modeled after Shark Tank the television show, the prize is a chance to have their technology installed and tested on a section of pipeline – and if successful, a virtually guaranteed market. EERC works with pipeline operators to install the technology at a test site, then evaluates how well the tools detect leaks. They share results with members of the iPIPE consortium. Technology can include sensors, “smart pigs,” radar-based leak detection, UAS and more.

The second “Shark Tank” was held May 1 in Minot.

“We brought in companies from all over the world,” said Almlie. “Each presented their ideas, and we selected two for demo this summer. We’ll test their technology on sections of pipeline. The technology providers do the work and we asses it. Our job is to tell the truth from the industry viewpoint. We offer an independent perspective at the end of the testing period.”

Almlie said they select providers who are not yet ready for commercial deployment.

“We help them prove viability,” he said. “We test the technology first. Industry benefits with new tools they didn’t have before, tech providers get a marketplace and customers, the state and landowners benefit from fewer spills. Everyone wins.”

Almlie also hopes that more pipeline companies join iPIPE.

“The project is getting traction,” he said. “Governor Burgum likes it. We hope all 26 oil producers become part of this.”