GIS In Pipeline Management

Sept. 28, 2010

The standard American football field is 360 feet long, including the end zones. Think about standing at one end and looking down the field. Now add an extra 140 feet to your mental picture — another 45 yards or so. This linear space is what the National Pipeline Mapping System (NPMS) defines as "minimum precision" for pipeline locations: "NPMS data has a target accuracy of ±500 feet and resides in geographic coordinates." The NPMS continues: "NPMS data must never be used as a substitute for contacting the appropriate local one-call center prior to digging."

Does this level of accuracy allow for truly effective emergency planning and pipeline management? More importantly, this level of accuracy may actually impede your ability to maintain control of your existing pipeline assets, effectively manage changes, or plan for future additions. Additional changes to the area in and around your pipeline right-of-ways may include the placement of new housing developments, the building of new commercial centers, and modifications to public infrastructure.

Many interstate or intrastate pipelines have been in place for years. Consequently, some of the best information regarding these pipelines is obtained from local area business leaders (ABLs). These individuals generally "know" their local arrangements through personal experience. But the pace of change has been and is accelerating. Municipalities are continually expanding. Local knowledge may not always be cognizant of these many changes. In addition, important knowledge may not be passed along to new or less-experienced personnel as the chart of organization changes through rightsizing, re-assignment and attrition.

By utilizing a geographic information system (GIS), pipeline data can be managed in a highly accurate spatial database. GIS is a computer-based layered mapping system that allows for the assembly, storage, manipulation, and display of geographically referenced information. GIS is essentially a database designed to work with map data.

In order to obtain pipeline information that is clearly identified according to location, qualified survey crews collect new data using GPS (global positioning system)-enabled data loggers. In the hands of a knowledgeable GIS analyst, spatial database files can be created with sub-foot accuracy. These highly precise location data files can then be delivered directly to operators and regulators while providing a wealth of customized pipeline feature information. During the course of a DOT navigable water crossing survey, for example, uniquely identified water crossing location points were obtained, which provided pipeline managers information for more accurate and effective planning. To accomplish this, customized GPS surveying and GIS processing were combined to eliminate an awkward paper reporting step that was extremely inefficient and costly.

The GIS format provides managers with a platform by which they can more easily evaluate pipeline assets. The ability to visualize pipeline features has proven to be a powerful tool for decision-makers — saving valuable time and resources.

However, the geographic pipeline features represented as points, lines and polygons on paper or even on a computer screen (and the associated attribute tables) are not necessarily compelling or immediately understandable to executives, engineers and other decision-makers. Yes, you can generate attribute tables that provide precise coordinates and information about a certain pipeline asset. You can also visualize how the pipeline is laid out, but you cannot necessarily "see" anything else.

Now imagine that you can see a highly accurate and immediately understandable picture of your pipeline in juxtaposition to important features that surround it: fields, roads, waterways, population densities, structures, boundary lines, foreign utilities, existing facilities, environmentally sensitive areas, and even elevation data.

If the pipeline assets are within a true GIS, additional layers of information may be incorporated in the visual construct. This integration then allows in-depth analysis of the data by illustrating the relationships between the various layers. Evaluations can be conducted by GIS analysts and engineers as well as the executive decision-makers. You can overlay ortho-rectified aerial and satellite photography, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) topographic maps and other geographically referenced information directly into the base map.

The visual presentation is repeatable, and the GIS structure allows you real-time access to the supporting database files. The data will still be used for paper maps, but the spatial data files can also be warehoused in servers that provide for maximized search-ability throughout an organization and access to every person whose responsibility covers a specific pipeline segmentor asset.

It has been said that seeing is believing. Within a GIS, the common attribute table becomes "spatial" in the sense that the information can be provided to you in a much richer format. By converting the data from forms and spreadsheet tables to "spatial" visualizations, you can then interactively manage assets from a readily understandable geographic perspective.

This geographic perspective offers a far better medium by which to evaluate your assets and identify the potential risks surrounding them. Critical geographic coordinate data are converted to and combined with demographics, infrastructure elements, environmental features — and real and potential hazards. This is vital because new regulations and standards (and their annual survey requirements) continue to put increasing demands on operators. For example, the Pipeline Integrity Rule compels companies to identify "High Consequence Areas" or HCAs for pipelines located within areas that have a high population density or within sensitive environmental areas.

Every company that operates an interstate pipeline system must identify the segments of pipeline that are in or near HCAs and develop a Pipeline Integrity Management Plan to evaluate each of these pipeline segments. Results of integrity tests must be tracked, documented and repeated at prescribed intervals. As of late, field pipelines have fallen under new regulation that forces operators to have full knowledge of their location. In many (if not most) cases older positional data for these must be resubmitted, and a full understanding of responsibilities is submitted in tow.

A properly implemented GIS database will help you plan, prepare and document the integrity tests and the results for each pipeline segment. While increasing efficiency, the "spatial" characteristics of the GIS allow you to truly see what you have accomplished — or have yet to accomplish.

"Spatial" presentations take you from data to information to knowledge in a highly accurate, centralized format that everyone can access, no matter where they are working. Having accurate geographically referenced information within a GIS can greatly reduce the amount of time and labor costs wasted responding to service calls. The 500-foot search area is dramatically reduced, and the buffers placed around pipeline assets for one-call purposes are also dramatically reduced.

Having the spatial database digitally recorded is only part of the effectiveness equation. Your newly accurate information can meet tomorrow's needs, not just the demands of the here-and-now (regulatory and otherwise). The answers to questions like "Where do I put my new pipeline extension?" can be seen because the database is integrated with aerial and/or satellite imagery, digital elevation models, and fully annotated with roadways, waterways, structures, populations, etc.

True GIS implementation for pipeline assets can be used for:

  • Alignment Sheet Design and Creation
  • Integrated GPS Monitoring
  • Data Creation and Integration
  • Custom Cartographic (map) Templates
  • Pipeline Modeling
  • Pipeline Stationing
  • Organizing, Planning, and Forecasting Industry Changes

In every one of these applications, a picture is worth a thousand digits. "Spatial" visualization of the pipeline assets allows a new level of oversight. You can manage change with a much higher level of confidence by utilizing an accurate geographic database interactively within a GIS.

We suggest that it is time to incorporate GIS into your operation. This will offer more to your operation than the sets of alignment sheets rolled-up in the corner of your office.

Editor's Note: EMS Group provides a full range of operations and maintenance (O&M) services to major pipeline operators, local distribution companies (LDCs) and independent power, oil and gas producers. EMS provides these integrated service offerings through five service lines: Pipeline Management, Pipeline Integrity, Production and Pipeline Projects, Power Services, and LNG /Natural Gas Services.