The number of U.S. oil and gas pipeline spills has increased nearly 60% since 2009 as aging infrastructure wears out, and “if the industry continues its upward trajectory, the financial impact of corroded steel pipelines will multiply,” corrosion protection executive Merrick Alpert writes in an opinion piece for Rigzone, an industry news outlet.
That cost already stood at US$2.5 trillion in 2016, Alpert warned. And the pipelines themselves are at an age and stage where the risk will only continue to escalate.
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“America laid the vast majority of its network of pipelines prior to 1970, and the new pipes being built don’t replace the outdated ones; they simply add on to the pre-existing skeleton,” he noted. “The majority of the pipelines are now more than 50 years old , and the dangers of steel that’s damaged by corrosion remain high.”
He adds that “each federal inspector tasked with monitoring these precious, aging pipelines  is responsible for the oversight of more than 5,000 miles”—twice the length of the continental United States, according to Quartz.
But far from concentrating on the safety challenge it already faces, the North American pipeline industry is hell-bent on expansion. As American pipelines are flowing like never before—and being developed at energetic rates—the threat of corrosion lingers as a costly, dangerous reminder of the need for pipeline protection,” Alpert notes. And “traditional strategies for corrosion prevention won’t be enough. Oil and gas leaders in the U.S. must implement forward-thinking strategies to combat and prevent pipeline corrosion if we hope to see the industry thrive.”
If natural gas consumption in the United States and Canada fulfills industry projections and grows 1.2% per year through 2035, the result will be more than a half-million miles (800,000 kilometres) of new pipe, Alpert says.
“That’s enough pipeline to stretch to the moon and back again with tens of thousands of miles left over,” he writes. He could have noted that, as with any other form of infrastructure, all of that steel will begin degrading the day it’s put in place.
Alpert surveys the new corrosion protection technologies available to pipeliners and traces the role of the “corrosion professional” in “supporting both the health of the organization’s steel assets and the business improvement goals of upper management.” He warns that pipeline companies can’t expect to be profitable if they don’t take corrosion seriously.
“If organizations are hit with the costs of addressing corrosion of 50-year-old pipelines, applying traditional coatings to half a million miles of new pipeline, and lost productivity due to pipeline damage or downtime, it will be difficult for U.S. oil and gas organizations to profit at all from the industry’s growth,” he writes