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Picking up after the storm path

Hurricane Harvey caused tremendous damage to the energy capital of Houston in late August and swept through a zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is home to several active offshore pipelines. The BSEE’s deputy regional director talks about ensuring pipeline safety before, during and after a major storm.

Hurricanes can wreak devastation on offshore infrastructure. In the case of pipelines, a physical impact, such as a dragging anchor, can breach a pipeline and cause pollution.

Strong waves and currents can move a pipeline, causing stress and potential ruptures.

Pipeline crossings may also be damaged by wave and current action, and waves can even expose buried pipelines in water depths of less than 200 feet.

The connectors between risers and surface facilities also can succumb to stress from wind and wave action.

“We want industry to inspect, evaluate and report to BSEE on these kinds of things,” says Keven Karl, deputy regional director for the US Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement.

BSEEcropKevin Photo: BSEE

"We’ve received no damage reports, which is very good."
Kevin Karl, BSEE, on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

“If these types of impacts and occurrences were to take place, without proper assessment and subsequent repair, when production and transportation resumed, the potential for an impact on the environment would be likely.”

Pipeline operators monitor pressure levels in their assets, which can indicate whether there is a break in the line. An aerial flyover can show whether hydrocarbons have been released into the water.

BSEE oversees more than 23,000 miles of active and inactive pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico. Of the 12,000 miles of transmission lines, 11,500 miles are active.

The remaining 11,000 miles are producer lines, of which 7,500 miles are still active.

tc29898c.jpg Photo: AFP/SCANPIX

While Houston endured extensive flooding in Harvey’s fury, only 10 active pipelines – 52 miles worth – were in the storm’s path.

“This hurricane didn’t result in any kind of pipeline damage, primarily because of the area it went into,” Karl says. “We’ve received no damage reports, which is very good.”

By comparison, the 2008 hurricanes Gustav and Ike jointly destroyed 60 platforms and severely damaged another 31 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The two hurricanes also damaged one oil pipeline system and eight gas pipeline systems.

Damage in the 2005 hurricane season, which included the back-to-back storms Katrina and Rita, was more extensive, with some offshore pipeline systems remaining offline for a year.

Damage control

According to a directive issued August 29, 2017, inspections of all facilities that were in Harvey’s path, including pipelines, must be completed and reported to BSEE by the end of March 2018 and any required repairs carried out by June 1, 2018.

“If there is damage, if anything is detected, we are going to step in and they’re not going to be allowed to flow until that repair is made,” Karl says.

Pipeline operators typically maintain low pressures in pipelines that are shut in for storms. If those low pressures drop even further, it signals a problem.

“They monitor that on their own,” Karl says. “After the storm passes, they fly (over) the lines looking for pollution in the water.

BSEE, through its inspection staff, also conducts its own targeted overflights within the hurricane path to assess damage and potential pollution.”

Inspections of assets in the path of a hurricane are governed by 30 CFR 250.1005(a) “Inspection Requirements for DOI Pipelines” and NTL 2009-G30 “Post Hurricane Inspection and Reporting.”

Some of the requirements vary based on water depth. For example, pipeline tie-ins and crossing in less than 200 feet of water must be visually inspected by either divers or a remotely operated vehicle.

For all water depths, operators must inspect pipeline risers and steel catenary risers. If the line exists in a known mudslide area, it must be visually inspected and leak tested.

All pipelines must undergo a two-hour leak test to confirm the integrity of the line before it can return to active service.

If damage has occurred to a pipeline, BSEE works with industry to ensure repairs and modifications are evaluated and processed expeditiously so production can resume while ensuring safety for the offshore personnel and protection for the environment, Karl says.

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