In August 2017, after over five years of construction and more than 300 dedicated workers employed for construction alone, the first major crude oil pipeline connecting the west Athabasca region to the Edmonton market was completed. The pipeline moves crude oil from the established Athabasca producing region as well as new developments near the Athabasca River. A pipeline of this magnitude, however, comes with some challenges. Operators use it to transport a variety of products to maximize efficiency. Safe and optimal operations are vital.
This particular pipeline transports both heavy crude and synthetic oil, and the operator switches between the two 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, allowing for the most efficient use of the line. To prevent contamination, batching is used to ensure there is no product mixing. When an operator switches the medium of a pipeline, the materials must be separated, and the line must be cleaned to prepare for the new product. Special batching pigs are needed to separate the product, to clean the pipe wall and, ultimately, to maintain the product grade. These tools are equipped with a transmitter, front pull unit cage, two cups, six sealing discs and magnets.
To ensure the performance and, more importantly, the integrity of the line, batching, in-line inspection and integrity services ensure a clean, efficient and safe pipeline. With 24/7 operation comes 24/7 service, so in January of 2018 ROSEN set up a satellite operation and began the process of preparing, running and rebuilding tools, and tracking the cup/disc wear of each tool after each run. In addition to the batching service completed daily, gauging inspections would also be needed. Divided into four sections, the line included three 20-inch diameter sections, varying in length between 144 km, 137 km and 139 km, and a 36-inch diameter section of 41 km.
This called for a dedicated team of technicians and tools. To start, ROSEN set up a local on-site team dedicated to this project. Three field technicians were assigned to Fort McMurray, the beginning of the pipeline, and three to Edmonton, the end. Working alongside these six are three shop crew members. The team is responsible for launching, loading, cleaning, receiving and rebuilding tools, 24/7. Also provided were 28 dedicated gauging tools in diameters ranging from 20” to 36”. Sending a tool through the pipeline every day might sound simple, but this operation requires an extensive amount of procedural planning, including readiness of tools to be launched, which also requires tools to be rebuilt almost daily, and maintaining barrels for launching and other field equipment that must be always on the ready. The nine on-site technicians not only perform all operational duties, they also create a report evaluating the wear of the cups and discs. This provides insights into trends of pipeline operation and behavior based on the type of batch. This report is provided using a customized software created by specialists in Technology and Research Centers in Lingen, Germany, and Bogota, Columbia. Essentially, the team evaluates run results, and if everything is within the specified parameters, the tool is refurbished and ready for the next run; however, if there is an abnormality, then a modification of the plan is recommended.
Maintaining a “Safety First” mindset, this small team will work around the clock until December 2020. They will collect important data for the future of the pipeline.
Why a cleaning program - not just a run?
Pipeline cleaning has various motivators: they can include the need to be within regulations, increase operational efficiency, ensure safe operation or to prepare a pipeline for in-line inspection activities. Whatever the motivation, or need, may be, finding the right approach is key. Creating a program can allow for much better results – rather than simply “running pigs.” It is essential for both operator and service provider to completely understand the pipeline system: what are its characteristics, etc. Next, it is vital to define and communicate clear objectives. No goal, no success. With a common understanding of what is needed, the best approach can be identified, and with that a clear program. The steps can be pretty straightforward:
- Collect data from past maintenance activities
- Assess pipeline condition, debris, previous cleaning pigs, etc.
- Define the most suitable cleaning program
- Apply program and improve if required
- Plan the cleaning frequency
- Measure and document
But a program does not always need to be a complex thing, with staff involved daily 24/7 for three years. Depending on the objectives and the specific case, the program can consist of a single cleaning run with one pig, multiple runs with different kinds of pigs, trains of different pigs or even, perhaps, combined approaches with chemical batches and pig trains. The idea is to clean with a goal in mind to be more effective.