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As natural gas providers deal with the combination of aging infrastructure and safety, one of the most important factors emerging is the vital role of reliable data and recordkeeping as a means of preserving system resiliency.

Recordkeeping is a key issue in measuring a pipeline infrastructure’s life cycles and managing associated risks, according to Jeff Meyers, Manager in Black & Veatch’s Oil & Gas management consulting practice.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) requires that transmission and distribution operators update their Transmission Integrity Management Plan (TIMP) or Distribution Integrity Management Plan (DIMP). This has prompted organizations to establish internal historical data collection projects, Meyers noted. They’ve focused on geographic information system (GIS) enhancements and maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP) verification initiatives. Operators have also investigated and implemented modern data collection systems.

“Through our involvement with many gas providers, we’ve observed that more organizations are implementing bar code readers, GIS and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, as well as other methods for quickly and accurately cataloging equipment and material,” Meyers said. “System assets can be easily assessed, with important information about maintenance, operation and asset history conveyed to field personnel.”

According to the 2015 Black & Veatch Strategic Directions: U.S. Natural Gas Industry report, safety again ranks top among the sector’s most important issues. Aging infrastructure is right behind amid new concerns about pipeline integrity, significantly increased regulatory oversight and punitive judgments against providers considered to be at fault or in violation at the time of an incident.

“I believe the root causes of any safety incident are interconnected, with data management having a relationship with other key factors,” Meyers said.

Half of industry participants surveyed view the increasing focus on energy system resilience as an opportunity for their system to provide additional services to existing and potential customers, and another 17 percent indicated they are currently evaluating their systems. About 30 percent of respondents said their organizations either had no current plans to assess resilience or were not aware of such efforts being under way.

Just under 4 percent said they are not yet prepared to meet enhanced resiliency and reliability requirements for their customers.

Industry Adopting Risk-Based Planning

According to PHMSA, roughly 98 percent of the nation’s underground distribution network is composed of cathodically protected coated steel and plastic pipes, with the remaining 2 percent — or about 30,000 miles — made of cast and wrought iron. In addition, there remain about 40,000 miles of non-cathodically protected bare steel in distribution systems.

The majority of the cast iron infrastructure serves natural gas in urban centers, including the Northeast, where cycles of freezing and thawing, construction, water main breaks and other factors degrade cast iron’s integrity.

Of the 1,400 distribution gas operators reporting annually to PHMSA, only 42 companies have more than 100 miles of cast iron, and 55 companies have more than 100 miles of non-cathodically protected bare steel remaining in service.

“With the majority of utilities having limited leak-prone pipelines, it is encouraging that resilience planning has ascended to the top of many gas providers’ to-do lists, or that safety now ranks as a top issue,” said Meyers. “Many organizations understand the risk.”

According to the survey, nearly half of natural gas service providers reported they had adopted a risk-based planning approach that identifies criticality and the likelihood of failure under extreme weather conditions. However, that leaves more than 50 percent of the organizations indicating they had not performed an assessment – or the respondents did not know if one had been undertaken.

“This disconnect can be attributed to a false sense of security, further underscoring the need for process improvement,” Meyers said. “The natural gas industry must continually evaluate its systems, not only for the leak-prone material of today, but for the risks in the future.”

He noted that risk assessment and accurate, detailed recordkeeping are inextricably linked.

“Natural gas service providers understand that missing or inaccurate information can lead to errors and increased risks, and high-profile incidents have reinforced the urgency about risk assessments,” Meyers said. “Still, much work remains as providers secure the pipeline infrastructure, which is vital to the role of natural gas in reliable power generation.”

Published originally on Black & Veatch Solutions.