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Fibre-optic Monitoring: Avoiding the Cost of Kalamazoo

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In a previous post, I wrote about pipeline monitoring technologies being developed as a joint partnership between TransCanada (builders of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Energy East pipeline) and Enbridge (builder of the Northern Gateway pipeline) and being tested at C-FER technologies in Edmonton.

Two of them are fibre-optic based: fibre-optic distributed acoustic sensing systems and fibre-optic distributed temperature sensing systems.

The applications in ensuring the safety of pipelines are obviously their most important feature. But one might be tempted to ask: just how much will all of that cost?

Well, the total investment in Enbridge and TransCanada's joint venture thus far is $4 million. (Enbridge has previously invested $3 million in building a test platform for the new technologies.) But aside from that, how much would such technologies cost to install? To operate? And how do they measure up to more traditional pipeline monitoring methods like walking, driving, or flying the line?

As it turns out, the costs of walking or driving a pipeline can range from $150 to $525 per kilometer. The costs of flying a line are actually considerably less expensive: $6.75 per kilometer, per flight. Altogether, the costs can be as high as $678 per kilometer.

The costs of fibre-optic monitoring systems obviously involve a capital investment, as well as annual operating costs. Presuming that Enbridge and TransCanada's versions of these technologies cost what the versions being developed by European firms are expected to, the cost -- all-in with capital investments -- are expected to be $3900 per kilometer.

That may seem like a hefty investment, particularly as these technologies won't necessarily replace walking, driving, or flying a pipeline. After all, there's a reason why good safety regimens are designed with redundancies.

But compare that to the cost of a pipeline spill. Virtually any pipeline spill, large or small. Then compare it to the cost of a spill like Kalamazoo.

Preventing a spill the size of the Kalamazoo disaster would have essentially paid for 256,500 kilometers of fibre-optic pipeline monitoring.

Seems worth it now, doesn't it?

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