Weighing Variables Critical to Optimal Pipeline Route Selection

September 28, 2015 Scott Dauzat

Effective pipeline routing requires careful consideration of many different social, environmental, and geographical factors. This has become especially true in recent years as the challenges associated with building a pipeline have increased.

A process that once consisted of plotting the shortest distance between two points on a topographical map and gathering all relevant information along the route to determine if construction was feasible, has now transformed into a much more complex undertaking that requires careful management of landowner permissions, negotiations, right of way acquisition, permitting, regulatory compliance, and precise coordination with local, state, and federal .

While all of these factors play an important role in planning a pipeline route, understanding which can have the biggest impact on a project’s completion is critical to minimizing costs and ensuring an optimal and safe route selection. GIS technology has become a useful tool for achieving this. Operators who take full advantage of its capabilities improve the health of the pipeline and safety for the humans and environment surrounding it.

Not all factors are created equal

Because there are a wide range of variables that have to be taken into account during the routing process, determining the degree of influence that each can have on a pipeline project is necessary to proper selection.

For instance, on some projects, crossing over a stream or waterway may be more of a concern than crossing in close proximity to a populated area. Safety and environmental preservation are often the main determinants of this; however, many other things, including cost, also play a role.

"Operators who take full advantage of GIS capabilities improve the health of the pipeline and safety for the humans and environment surrounding it."

Although the shortest distance may be the most cost-effective from a construction standpoint, any savings can quickly be erased if it requires more permitting. The same can be said about project schedule. If a route crosses a high number of property lines or in close proximity with a sensitive area, the chances of running into a delay due to problems with a landowner or a local regulatory agency will increase.  Other factors that have the potential to increase costs and delay projects include rail crossings, location of existing easements or utility corridors, wetlands, and historically significant sites.

This also applies to geographical factors as well. Slope of terrain and type of rock play the biggest role in determining whether or not a pipeline is feasible from an engineering standpoint, and one may be more difficult to deal with than the other. While operators are rarely presented with the option of simply choosing one over the other, understanding what geographical obstacles will be encountered and what kind of impact they have on a route is an important step in effective planning.

In all cases, quantifying each of these variables’ influence on a route needs to be completed so that they can be ranked (or weighted) in order of importance. Operators can then manually input that information into a GIS, which uses the data to identify a route that avoids the most problematic areas.

Quantifying and/or weighting variables can be done using a number of different methodologies, including:

  • risk assessments
  • environmental studies
  • cost-benefit analyses

In recent years, operators have also made a point to engage with local officials and even residents in order to gain a better understanding of how a pipeline will affect a community and the environment surrounding it. Gathering information in this manner and incorporating into the weighting process can also be beneficial as it promotes transparency and understanding between residents and pipeline owners.

Every project is different

Every pipeline presents its own distinct challenges and no single routing approach can be applied to all projects. Pipeline diameter, type of product being transported, the state/county/township that the route will go through, presence of infrastructure, and proximity to schools, roads, transmission lines, and airports all have to be taken into consideration during the planning process.

"Every pipeline presents its own distinct challenges and no single routing approach can be applied to all projects."

Understanding how each of these variables can impact a project helps determine when a route will be finalized and approved. For some projects, this can occur during the FEED phase, while in others it may not be until detailed design.

A “one size fits all” approach to pipeline routing is simply not feasible because every project is different in terms of terrain, location, the environment, and schedule. By quantifying impacts and weighting variables, operators can improve the effectiveness of GIS technology – thus ensuring that the route selected is the safest, most profitable, and environmentally sustainable option available.

To learn more about pipeline planning, read Audubon Field Solutions’ article in the August issue of “Pipeline and Gas Journal” here.

SCOTT DAUZAT

Vice President of Business Development

Scott Dauzat is the Vice President of Business Development at Audubon Field Solutions. Scott has more than 20 years’ experience in corrosion engineering, business development, sales and marketing in the oil and gas industry. His extensive industry experience includes corrosion control, in-line tool inspection, hydrotesting, and cathodic protection systems analysis for both onshore and offshore. In his current role, Scott is responsible for identifying new opportunities and the development and execution of the company’s business development strategies. He holds a B.S. in Geology from the University of Louisiana.

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