Pipeliners Podcast


In this episode of the Pipeliners Podcast, you will learn about the important topic of inline pipeline inspection with guest Marc Lamontagne. Included is a discussion of the history of pigging and the three categories of threats to pipeline integrity.

You will be in the same position as host Russel Treat walking through the pigging process, what tools are available to identify specific integrity threats, and the difference between axial and circumferential magnetic tools.

Finally, the discussion concludes with a focus on the technology to capture data from an inline pipeline inspection. Learn how an active data management program or system can help manage risks, find anomalies, and then take action repairing leaks.

Inline Pipeline Inspection Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms

  • Marc Lamontagne is the president of the Lamontagne Pipeline Assessment Corporation. Find and connect with Marc on LinkedIn.
  • Metallurgical Engineering is the study of metals. Specifically, extraction, design and processing of metals, and how metals react to environmental changes or stress.
  • Pigging refers to using devices known as “pigs” to perform maintenance operations. This tool associated with inline pipeline inspection has now become known as a Pipeline Inspection Gauge (PIG).
  • An electrolytic cell is a device where electrical energy is converted to chemical energy. This type of cell consists of two metallic or electronic conductors (electrodes) held apart from each other and in contact with an electrolyte to produce an electrochemical reaction.
  • Features refers to items such as tees, valves, or other mechanical portions of the pipeline.
  • Valves are mechanical switches that turn pipes on and off or raise or lower the amount of fluid flowing through pipes.
  • Anomalies or defects are deviations from the original configuration of a pipeline. This could be the result of a change in wall thickness due to metal loss, a deformation of the pipewall, or a crack.
  • Magnetic flux leakage is a magnetic method of nondestructive testing that is used to detect corrosion and pitting in steel structures such as pipelines.
  • Axial and circumferential magnetic tools evaluate metal loss going down a pipeline. Axial refers to when the flux runs along the pipeline and circumferential refers to the flux running around the pipe.
  • EMAT (Electromagnetic Acoustic Transducer) is an ultrasonic tool that uses sound waves to perform non-contact inline pipeline inspection.
  • SmartBall provides accurate leak and gas pocket detection without interrupting service to make the inspection.
  • Cathodic protection is a technique used to control the corrosion of a metal surface by making it the cathode of an electrochemical cell.
  • Coating disbondment occurs when the external coating applied for corrosion and/or abrasion protection has separated from the pipe.
  • Chromosome karyotype refers to a test to identify and evaluate the size, shape, and number of chromosomes in a sample of body cells.
  • The Pipeline Pigging and Integrity Management Conference is held annually in Houston. PPIM is devoted exclusively to pigging for maintenance and inspection, as well as pipeline integrity evaluation and repair.

Episode Transcript: Inline Pipeline Inspection with Marc Lamontagne

[background music]

Announcer:  The “Pipeliners Podcast,” where professionals, bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations.

Now, your host Russel Treat.

Russel Treat:  Marc, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.

Marc Lamontagne:  Great to be here, Russel.

Russel:  First, Marc, could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became an integrity engineer?

Marc:  Sure, Russel. I obtained my Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering from Queens University in Canada. While I was doing that, a colleague of mine in school, he went off to work at a pipeline company. As he knew I was completing my work, he gave me a call and that’s how I ended up in the pipeline industry.

Russel:  I think that’s how a lot of us get into this business. It’s who we know and sometimes even more importantly, who knows us. They say, “Hey, why don’t you come over here and be a pipeliner?” and you’re like, “Pipelines? What is that?”

Marc:  Exactly. [laughs]

Russel:  The first thing I want to ask about is, how long has this technology been around? How did it get started and more to the point, what is a pig? Where does that word come from?

Marc:  Wow, that’s a good question. In the mid-’60s, the first inspection tools that were created were based on magnets. These magnets were so strong that as they traveled through the pipe, there was a steel on steel squealing that was emanating from the pipe as they ran along. This is where the term pig came from.

These days, pigs are much quieter and that has become an acronym for Pipeline Inspection Gauge.

Russel:  What you’re telling me is in the field, they came up with the name because it sounded like a pig was running down the pipeline squealing, and then some time later, somebody who was an engineer or something says, “We need to make this sound more professional.”


Marc:  That’s right. Engineers love their acronyms.

Russel:  I’m a novice at this. I’m learning. Obviously, I’ve been around pipelining long enough to have a notional idea of what pigs are and what they do, but I’m really a novice. I don’t really understand what this technology is and all of that. As a novice, what should I know to get started understanding about pigging?

Marc:  Pigging, itself, are looking for particular threats on the pipeline. Threats can be specific to individual pipelines. Not all pipelines are exposed to the same threat. The inline inspection are inspection tools designed to look for specific integrity threats.

Russel:  That actually raises the question, what specifically is a threat?

Marc:  There are basically three categories of threats. There are stable threats. There are growing threats, and there are external, environmental threats.

Russel:  [laughs] That’s perfect, except I still don’t know what a threat is. I’m certain that that makes sense to you, [laughs] but again, I’m a novice. I need to know, what is a threat? [laughs]

Marc:  Inline pipeline inspection tools would be looking for threats such as pipeline corrosion, cracking within pipelines, third party damage such as denting or even environmental ground movement damage which may cause wrinkling or buckling of the pipeline.

Russel:  I would assume that for submerged pipelines, like in a river where there are strong currents, same kind of thing.

Marc:  Yes, if there’s pipe movement, then there may be wrinkling and of course, there may be some corrosion.

Russel:  I guess that makes sense. A threat is basically anything where the pipeline could break or where we could lose, the product could get out of the pipeline and into the environment. That’s what we’re looking for, is threats, and then trying to understand how bad they are.

Marc:  The science of pipeline integrity is based on that, the prevention of loss of containment.

Russel:  That makes perfect sense. You were talking about stable threats and some other… Can you give me an idea of what is a stable threat versus some of the other threats that you see?

Marc:  Stable threats may be a manufacturing anomaly. When the pipe was made, there can be some impurities in the pipe, or that remain after manufacturing and the creation of the pipe. That would be a stable threat because it does not grow. The growing threats, an example would be corrosion where it’s electrolytic cell that continues to grow based on the environment that it sees.

Russel:  Do you work with cathodic protection at all?

Marc:  I don’t, but it’s all part and parcel of the process.

Russel:  I work in leak detection, which is doing things in the data collection and analyzing the data to see if you have a loss of containment or have a leak. It’s all related. All the science and disciplines are all rather different.

Marc:  That’s right.

Russel:  This is very interesting. There’s stable threats. There’s threats that are growing. What are those called? A growing threat? Is that the right name for it?

Marc:  Yes, that’s fine. It’s a category. Within the category, there are various, more specific terms for the threats.

Russel:  We probably have to go through, maybe do some definitions for people. I know the term anomaly is used a lot in this discipline. Maybe we can talk about what is an anomaly, and how do you categorize those anomalies? That might be helpful as well.

Marc:  We’ll go back even further. There’s features in a pipeline which can include the anomalies that we are talking about.

Russel:  Okay, this is good, but you’re going to have to help me out here. What’s a feature?

Marc:  [laughs] Yeah. Features can be items such as tees or valves or other mechanical portions of the pipeline.

Russel:  Basically, the physical installation types as categories?

Marc:  Yes, that’s right. Anomalies are items such as corrosion or cracking or dents that may affect the integrity of the pipeline. There are defects. Defects are anomalies that are critical and should be excavated and mitigated.

Russel:  Again, I want to run this back just to make sure I’ve got it. Feature is the physical parts of the pipeline as defined by what they are. Valves, I guess different kinds of joints, depending on how they were manufactured, could be considered different features and things of that nature?

Marc:  Yes.

Russel:  Anomalies are things that are something about the pipe that’s less than perfect?

Marc:  Yes.

Russel:  Defects are anomalies we need to repair or fix?

Marc:  Yes. You just summarized it very well. Thank you.

Russel:  Ignorance is sometimes helpful.


Russel:  That’s helpful. The other thing that I’m beginning to learn a little bit, just from having the chance to work with you on some stuff, is that these anomalies are of different types. You mentioned corrosion and cracking and other types of things that happen. I also know that there’s different kinds of pigs, and each pig finds different kinds of anomalies.

Marc:  That’s right.

Russel:  Talk us through about that. What are the types of pigs? Of the types, what kind of things are they able to detect?

Marc:  With steel pipelines, you have to find the technology that can actually be compatible with the steel. There are generally two physical methods of examining a pipeline. One would be magnetics. The other would be sound waves.

Magnetic inspection tools use permanent magnets to impart a magnetic flux into the pipe. If you can imagine the flux being water running down a river, where there is a metal loss…

Russel:  Actually, I think you just gave me a picture of what’s going on. If I think of the flux, which is a field, being a flow of water in a river…

Marc:  That’s right.

Russel:  …and if I think of the pipeline being the surface of the river — whether it’s sand or rock or pebbles, and whether any of those things are interrupting the flow of the water    by looking at the flow of the water, I can figure out what the nature of the river bottom is.

Marc:  That’s right.

Russel:  That’s cool.

Marc:  If you think of the flux going through the pipe, which is saturated, so it’s full of magnetic flux.

Russel:  Like a river running with a lot of velocity?

Marc:  That’s right. Hitting a large boulder or metal loss, that flux is then leaving the pipe and being measured by the magnetic tool.

Russel:  Again, I’m just trying to visualize this in my mind’s eye. It’s almost the opposite of water flowing. With water, if there’s an obstruction, the water will pile up in front and disappear behind. People that are rafters, canoers, or kayakers would know what I’m talking about.

They understand how there’s eddies and such behind objects. In a flux, it’s the opposite because what happens is, when there’s nothing for the flux to flow through, it’s got to go somewhere.

Marc:  Exactly. The terms for these tools are magnetic flux leakage because you’re measuring the leakage of the magnetic flux.

Russel:  You’re looking for the missing flux.

Marc:  That’s right. By the energy that has been lost, a depth and sizing of the metal loss anomaly can take place.

Russel:  You also mentioned axial and longitudinal. Let’s talk about that for just a second. What’s the distinction between the two different kinds of magnetic tools?

Marc:  Axial and circumferential, so axial and longitudinal are the same direction.

Russel:  It’s looking at metal loss going down the pipeline?

Marc:  The magnetic flux is traveling axially, longitudinally along the pipeline. The sensors are oriented for that. The circumferential magnetic flux tools have the field running circumferentially around the…


Russel:  Again, to use the river analogy, one is axial is water flowing down the river. Longitudinal would be…

Marc:  Yes. Axial is flowing down the river, and that’s equal to longitudinal. Transverse or circumferential is the opposite direction.

Russel:  Again, the analogy would be like water flowing across the river, perpendicular to the normal flow.

Marc:  That is circumferential. Yes.

Russel:  I would assume that you can’t run an axial and transverse tool back to back because they would interfere with each other.

Marc:  Actually, there are such combo tools on the market today. Yes.

Russel:  Wow. I don’t want to open that up too deeply because that’s a rabbit hole we could probably spend 30 minutes just talking about, like how do they do that?

Marc:  Right.

Russel:  That’s good to know.

Marc:  If you think of, again, the water analogy, if you have a longitudinally long anomaly with a very narrow width, you won’t be able to define it as well with an axial tool as you would with a circumferential tool.

There would be less disruption of the magnetic flux with an axial tool, as opposed to a circumferential tool which would have more disruption because of the longitudinal…

Russel:  It makes perfect sense because it’s going to interrupt the flux more because of how the anomaly interrupts the flux. It’s a signal resolution issue.

Marc:  Yes.

Russel:  That’s, again, a novice’s explanation of magnetic tools. What are the other kinds of tools that are out there? You mentioned sound wave or ultrasonic tools.

Marc:  Ultrasonic tools, by their name, are ultrasonic. They impart sound waves into the steel. These generally require a liquid medium to run in. There is a variation of tools known as EMAT tools, which can impart their sound waves without a liquid medium.

There is a distinction between the two. Ultrasonic tools, I guess, impart the sound on the pipe, and then if there are anomalies that they encounter, the sound waves return to the sensors with a sizeable time of flight detection of the anomaly. From the reflections, they can size the anomaly.

Russel:  I don’t know that if for the listeners, that’s an easy thing to visualize. If you think about sound travels at different speeds through different mediums, it’s going to travel through the fluid at one speed and it’s going to travel through the steel at a different speed.

By measuring the roundtrip, you’re going to know, because you know how much fluid is in the line. The remaining signal is the steel. Have I got that right?

Marc:  Yes. That’s right.

Russel:  It’s amazing that I got that right. [laughs]

Marc:  Good guess. These tools can come in a metal loss package or a crack detection package.

Russel:  They’re doing different processing of the signal to pick up different kinds of things.

Marc:  Right. They’re a different ultrasonic setup. There is a compression wave and a sheer wave, but we won’t get into that either right now.


Russel:  Please don’t. We’re actually doing this in the morning. It’s too early in the day for that conversation. There’s no beer involved.


Russel:  I need beer in order to retain the information. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. We’ve talked about magnetic. We’ve talked about ultrasonic. Are there other pig types that are prevalent?

Marc:  There are acoustical tools. There’s an acoustic leak tool. There’s an acoustical tool that is being looked into for measurement of corrosion and potentially cracking. There are tools that can measure cathodic protection, as we had discussed earlier, some tools to examine for coating disbondment.

Russel:  I actually know of one you didn’t mention. Again, I’m amazed. I’m aware of a tool called SmartBall that is able to detect leaks.

Marc:  I thought I did mention that. [laughs]

Russel:  Maybe you did. I was listening for it because I was trying to sound intelligent, Marc.

Marc:  Acoustical leak. Yeah, that’s I believe I mentioned. If I didn’t, add it.


Russel:  I think there’s a couple other things, just to take this as an overview, that come up for me as I think about this. One is, what that means…I think I probably didn’t understand before you and I started working together, is that you actually have to run multiple tools to get all this data because no one tool picks up everything.

I guess the whole idea of integrity management is understanding what threats you think you might have and what tools would give you the best assessment of those threats.

Marc:  That’s right. Based on experience from excavations or what has been seen on the pipeline, pig vendors can help you with deciding what might be the best tool for your specific threats that you have encountered.

That’s entirely true, that their multiple technologies may be even run for just corrosion. Because of the variations of corrosion that might be found, you might want to run two or three different types of metal loss tools just to best characterize your pipeline.

Russel:  It makes perfect sense. I don’t think I want to talk about the logistics right now of running pigs. That’s probably something that we might ask you to come back, and we can talk about that in a different episode.

What I would like to talk about is the data because the other thing I know about smart pigging is it creates a bunch of data.

Somebody has got to wade through that stuff and determine what it means. The allegory I would make to this, many years ago, when I was working outside the oil and gas business, I did some work in chromosome karyotype.

Chromosome karyotyping at that time was all done by a lab technician looking through an electron microscope and looking for these malformities in chromosomes. Their accuracy rate would run 60 to 80 percent, based on the experience of the technician.

I worked with a company that had a NASA image analysis engineer, so a Ph.D. mathematician with a background in image analysis that had done a lot of the work on the early exploratory satellites and figuring out how to get high-resolution pictures and compress that into a data file and so forth.

What they were able to do is they were able to, through the use of technology, analyze that data and get it to the point where they had a 99.99 percent accuracy and no human intervention, other than to build the slides. Radically changed the price. Radically changed the speed. Radically changed the accuracy.

I use that as a background conversation to talk about the challenge that we have as an industry of dealing with all these data, because the question that comes up for me is, “I got multiple tools. I’ve got to be able to take all these data and determine what does it mean in terms of features and anomalies and defects.”

Taking the data and determining what it means in those terms, and then I’ve got to look at these data from the different tools, I would assume that the raw data is different in the way it’s constituted. Is that right?

Marc:  Yes, exactly. If you go back to the early tools, they actually had scrolls of paper that lines were being drawn on.

Russel:  I’m old enough to remember that kind of thing, Marc.


Russel:  We call those chart recorders.

Marc:  Yeah. Right, exactly. Fortunately, we now have, in the digital age, lots of memory that we can store all these, the multitude of signals, too, within the pig itself. The data that is recovered after the tool run is then brought into the vendors’ house.

They, of course, have developed their own proprietary software to examine and detail the anomalies that are within the pipes. The software itself has learned to box or highlight the anomalies that are within the pipe.

Russel:  I’m a software guy. I’m walking the floor at Pipeline Pigging and Integrity Management yesterday evening. I’m looking for the software companies. There’re engineering companies. There are service companies. There are pig companies.

All the pig companies have software, but I would categorize that as analytical software. Not knowing anything but to make an assumption, I would assume that most of that analytical software works with their pigs than work with anybody else’s pigs.

Marc:  Yes. That’s generally correct, yes.

Russel:  I came across two or three companies that were pure software vendors. If I were going to say what’s the state of the art in our business right now is that the tools for analysis are quite good, but the tools for system management are somewhat nonexistent.

Marc:  Those tools for system management have been around for a few years and are improving every year.

Russel:  I would assume that it’s a huge challenge to take all these data and figure out how to put it together in a way that’s meaningful so that you can do systems analysis versus run analysis.

Marc:  Yes. The vendors size the anomalies. They are typically best to do it because of their changing technologies within the tools. It is best left to them to size the anomalies.

The operators then receive this final product of sized anomalies, which describe the anomalies as well as their size and can work with that information.

Russel:  Is the output of the analysis that really is the systems management issue, not the raw analysis itself?

Marc:  That’s right. The raw analysis is at the vendor level.

Russel: Okay, that makes sense.

Marc:  There are a few operators that can and have delved into it. They, of course, should be well educated by the vendor that they’re using as well.

Russel:  That’s the other thing that…I’ve always wondered, why do the really big pipeline operators rent pigs? Why don’t they just have their own?

You can, out of this conversation, get there because there’s a lot that goes into the tool types, the technologies, and tuning those tools for the specific application. That’s a lot of very expensive, very specialized resources.

Marc:  It is.

Russel:  It would be hard for any operator to operate that effectively internal.

Marc:  Yes, it would be a separate business unit, definitely.

Russel:  Interesting, very interesting. I’m trying to think about where we might go in this conversation. If you were going to build a program from scratch, what would be the two or three things that you think are key considerations in building a smart pigging program for a pipeline? Someone has to make decisions about all these data and what it means, right?

Marc:  Yes.

Russel:  Again, I would categorize myself as a systems engineer. I know enough about technology to go as deep as I need to, but my real value, I think, is that I have a very broad understanding in depth in a couple of areas.

The thing that comes up for me, if I were building a pipeline company, I know I’ve got to have an integrity management function, but the key capability that I would want is a meaningful active management of risk.

In my experience, when I talk to pipeline executives, they are very risk-averse, and for good reason. I don’t mean that as a bad thing. I think that’s actually a good thing.

Vendors are always going to the pipeline operators and saying, “Hey, try this new thing. It’s going to add all this value for you.” Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.

You have to walk into that stuff and learn. There’s, “Yes, we need to know what’s coming out that’s new and understand its value, and see if we can improve our operations,” but we also need to be risk-averse because we don’t want to take risks.

Where I was coming from my question is, what would I need in the way of capability to be able to actually do a good job of that?

Marc:  You would need to obviously know your pipeline, as I mentioned, the properties of the pipe and the anomalies that are within the pipe to best characterize these anomalies such that this information can be integrated and based on feature types, location, etc., and then be a strong input for your integrity management program, which then mitigates the appropriate anomalies.

Thus, reducing your risk.

Russel:  Right, perfect. Look, I think probably that’s enough for today. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling saturated with as much data as I can take in in one sitting.

One of the things I do like to do is I like to try and summarize three key takeaways that I have after a conversation like this. I think I’m taking away three things.

(1) The first thing is I need to know what I have, both in terms of the pipe that I purchased and what anomalies it has in its current conditions. That’s a predicate, if you will, for any successful program.

(2) Secondly, I have to collaborate and partner with a vendor or vendors in order to build a program that, given my particular pipe and my particular operation, my particular situation, is going to best help me capture information that allows me to manage risk.

(3) On the backside, I need to have a program or a system for looking at all that stuff and actively managing the risks, finding those anomalies that are defects, finding those anomalies that are going to become defects, and figuring out how to get those things repaired.

I know this to be true just because it’s the way things are, that there’s always a tension or a conflict. It’s a healthy conflict, but there’s a conflict, nonetheless, between operating the pipe and maintaining the pipe. It’s just like any other manufacturing or transportation operation. You got to strike a balance between those things.

That’s my three takeaways. I want to say thanks. I actually learned a ton. The other takeaway is I now know about axial and transverse. I’m not going to say circumferential because I don’t know that I’m allowed to say that word.


Russel:  I know about axial and transverse tools. I know about features, anomalies, and defects. At least now, I might be able to sound intelligent for the first five minutes of the next conversation.

Marc:  Oh, come on, Russel. You’re too hard on yourself.


Russel:  Again, thanks very much for coming on board. I really appreciate it. I’d love to have you back in the future time. We’ll dig into some of these other things that we didn’t really try and unpack.

Marc:  Thank you, Russel. I’m looking forward to it.

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