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Pipeline Detection Systems Flawed, Study Says

The general public and emergency responders identified oil and gas spills far more often than computerized detection systems used by pipeline companies, according to a draft report commissioned by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The leak detection study, which is in draft form and set to be completed early next year, found pipeline control rooms identified leaks in hazardous liquid and natural gas transmission lines only 17 percent and 16 percent of the time, the New York Times reported.

Air patrols, operator ground crews and contractors were more likely to spot leaks than the pipeline controller/control room, the report said. Control rooms identified leaks in gas distribution pipelines, such as the kind used to deliver fuel into homes and businesses, less than 1 percent of the time, according to the report conducted by Kiefner & Associates.

The Ohio-based firm, which specializes in pipeline safety, examined pipeline incident reports between January 1, 2010 and July 7, 2011. The report was mandated as part of a series of oil and gas pipeline safety measures passed by Congress last year.

Procedures may have allowed alarms to be ignored by controllers in several of the larger volumes releases or to re-start pumps or open a valve, which could aggravate the release, according to the report.

But Peter Lidiak, pipeline director for the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry group, questioned the report’s methodology, saying the report did not portray a complete picture of the various strategies employed by pipeline operators to prevent leaks, the New York Times reported. Lidiak said the systems were more effective at detecting larger spills and acknowledged improvement was needed to identify smaller ones.

Late last month, the Interior Department released a plan to manage energy drilling on part of Alaska’s North Slope, with the opening of 11.8 million acres of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve. The plan would allow for the potential construction of pipelines carrying oil or gas from operations in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas through the NPR region known as the Western Arctic Reserve.

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