Pipeliners Podcast

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This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features the first of several episodes with Jay Almlie of the EERC and iPIPE consortium hosted by Russel Treat.

In this episode, you will learn about the iPIPE program, how the consortium started, the connection to the EERC and North Dakota governor, how a pipeline operator can think outside the box for AI, big data, and augmented reality, and more important topics introducing this series.

iPIPE Technology: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms

  • Jay Almlie is a Principal Engineer at the EERC and a leader of the iPIPE consortium. Connect with Jay on LinkedIn.
    • EERC (Energy & Environmental Research Center) is a research, development, demonstration, and commercialization facility for energy and environment technologies development located in Grand Forks, North Dakota. EERC is a leading developer of cleaner, more efficient energy to power the world and environmental technologies to protect and clean our air, water, and soil.
    • iPIPE (the intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program) is an industry-led consortium whose focus is to contribute to the advancement of near-commercial, emerging technologies to prevent and detect gathering pipeline leaks as the industry advances toward the goal of zero incidents.
  • Bakken Formation is one of the largest contiguous deposits of oil and natural gas in the United States. It is an interbedded sequence of black shale, siltstone, and sandstone that underlies large areas of northwestern North Dakota, northeastern Montana, southern Saskatchewan, and southwestern Manitoba.
  • Great Plains Software (Microsoft Dynamics GP) is a mid-market business accounting software or ERP software package marketed in North and South America, U.K. and Ireland, the Middle East, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand.
  • Doug Burgum is the current governor of North Dakota. Governor Burgum joined Great Plains Software in 1983 and became president in 1984. He sold the company to Microsoft in 2001.
  • Gathering lines are pipelines that are used to transport crude oil or natural gas from the production site (wellhead) to a central collection point. They generally operate at relatively low pressures and flow, and are smaller in diameter than transmission lines.
  • Leak Detection is the process of monitoring, diagnosing, and addressing a leak in a pipeline to mitigate risks.
  • Hydrovac Excavation is a technology that uses high-pressure water and vacuum to excavate soil. It is widely used for daylighting underground utilities, but also in the construction and petroleum industry.
  • GIS (Geographic Information System) is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present spatial or geographic data.
  • Seismic zone is used to describe an area where earthquakes tend to form.

iPIPE Technology: Full Episode Transcript

Russel Treat:  Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 109, sponsored by iPIPE, an industry-led consortium advancing leak detection and leak prevention technologies to eliminate spills as pipeliners move toward zero incidents. To learn more about iPIPE or to become an iPIPE partner, please visit ipipepartnership.com.

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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:  Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time, and to show that appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Rob Latimer with TC Energy. Congratulations, Rob, your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this signature prize pack, stick around until the end of the episode.

This week, we start a six-part series on iPIPE, an industry-led consortium, and we’ll be talking to Jay Almlie, the program manager for the iPIPE consortium. Without further ado, let’s jump into it. Jay, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.

Jay Almlie:  Thanks, Russel. Thanks for having me.

Russel:  I am really excited. First, I want to say thank you for being the first outside sponsor. I say outside, because we have been sponsoring this with EnerSys and Gas Certification Institute up to now. You are the first kind of an outside company that’s sponsoring the podcast and really do want to say thank you for doing that.

Jay:  I’m honored, thanks for the opportunity, Russel. We honestly wouldn’t have done this had we not known that you’ve got a significant listenership. That’s who we want to reach, is those pipeline professionals who are dialed in to this topic area.

Russel:  Well, great. Let’s dive in. You’re the director leader for iPIPE, maybe you could tell us a little bit about your background, and then a little bit about iPIPE.

Jay:  Sure, let me try to give you the short story so I don’t bore your listeners. My name’s Jay Almlie, I am the program manager for a program called iPIPE. That’s the intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program. It’s really an industry-led program, but industry — the partners, the members of iPIPE — needed someone to run the day-to-day operations.

We here at the Energy & Environmental Research Center here in Grand Forks, North Dakota have a longstanding trust relationship with many of those members. We’ve done business with them for years. We’re working with them to solve many oil problems here in the Bakken and elsewhere.

They turned to us, and they said, “Jay, would you manage this program for us if we are able to put it together?” Of course, that’s our wheelhouse. That’s what we do, so we were happy to do so and just really honored to be part of this groundbreaking program.

Russel:  Tell us, what is the iPIPE program? What is it you guys are doing?

Jay:  The iPIPE program is something fairly novel. It is a program dedicated to the development of new technologies — that is, emerging technologies, technologies not yet commercialized — that are for two purposes.

One, pipeline leak prevention, and two, pipeline leak detection, in that order. I say them in a specific order, because obviously every pipeline operator out there would rather prevent a leak than detect it. Cleanup costs with having a leak are so significant, they’re all working on eliminating leaks entirely.

Russel:  Simply stated, that’s the problem you’re really out to solve, is how do I not have leaks, and when I have them, how do I detect them as quickly and as reliably as possible?

Jay:  That is correct.

Russel:  That sounds real easy, Jay.

Jay:  [laughs] Does it? Because it isn’t.

Russel:  [laughs] No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t sound easy at all.

Jay:  Let me go back to the founding of iPIPE, why did this start?

In May of 2017, Governor Doug Burgum, North Dakota’s governor, called all of the pipeline operators with assets in the state together into a room and said, “My administration believes in innovation, not regulation. I know you can solve these problems, these pipeline leaks that have made the news, with technology.”

And with that challenge, he also added, “We are now in an era of zero public tolerance for leaks. Therefore, our goal is zero leaks.” That’s a high mountain to climb, but industry took up the challenge, and this is the program that resulted.

Russel:  That’s really interesting to me. To have a governor say, “We’re interested in innovation, not regulation,” that’s a little different.

Jay:  It is. I think it goes back to Governor Burgum’s background. Governor Burgum started a software company called Great Plains Software, which was purchased by Microsoft. He’s a technologist at heart.

Not every governor can say that, but governor Burgum is tightly in tune with technology and firmly believes that it can solve a lot of problems, if we just think outside the box and apply it correctly.

So yes, his administration has a rather unique stance on how to tackle all of the issues facing oil and gas. Remember that North Dakota, as a state, benefits — just like every other state — when oil and gas is produced and promoted effectively and safely. His interests are perfectly in line with industry’s.

Russel:  Right, and with the people of North Dakota as well. That’s my take on all this.

You made a comment about “to get outside of the box.” Maybe talk a little bit about, what’s the box, and what are you doing to get outside of it?

Jay:  What’s the box? The box today, typically, for most people, is, “I’m a pipeline operator. I get three or four calls a day from technology vendors who have the best widget ever. They’re knocking on my door saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this best widget. If you’d just apply it, you could avoid every single leak ever.'”

The pipeline operators know that’s not necessarily true. They’ve tried many of them, and they don’t always pan out. Some do, some don’t. The “outside the box” portion is, this group of pipeline operators founded iPIPE on the mantra that we don’t have enough tools in our tool belt to do the job the way we want to do it.

It really started here in North Dakota with gathering pipelines. Gathering pipelines are a unique beast. They are narrow diameter, three to eight inches typically. There are some smaller and some larger, but if we look at a Bell curve, most of them are in that three to eight inch range, that’s narrow diameter.

Smart pigs exist for pipelines to detect leaks, to check wall health, things like that. Most smart pigs don’t fit in that range.

The other challenging aspect of gathering pipelines is that they typically…That’s a big word. Let’s say they don’t always have pig launching and receiving hardware. They’re not designed to have smart pigs flow through them, so there’s a challenge for us.

Finally, here in North Dakota at least, these pipelines are buried sometimes 10, 12, up to 20 feet below ground, because we are a cold climate, so they have to get those down below the frost line so that frost heave doesn’t tear them apart.

Those three challenges make our problem here in North Dakota a little bit unique.

Russel:  The one thing you didn’t mention that I think’s also true with gathering lines is gathering lines are not straight run pipelines. I’m not going from a pump through a meter, down a straight run a long distance and into a tank.

They’re networks, so there’s many different pipes all coming together into a pipe to take a whole bunch of things and bring them together to a point versus just a straight run. If you use a railroad analogy, it’s more like a switchyard going out to a main line, versus just a main line.

Jay:  Well said, Russel. Obviously, I’m speaking to someone who knows. I have a difficult time conveying that fact to the public. They look like a spider web, and not only a spider web, but multiple spider webs on top of each other.

You’re right. They’re networked. They may have many inputs and many outlets. They may run for several hundred yards or several dozens of miles, and they’re all interconnected.

On top of that, there might be six companies within a one mile square, one square mile. Six companies might have assets laid on top of each other, so now we’re stacking assets two, three, five feet apart in a 3D spider web.

Russel:  That has all kinds of complexities with it as well, so a lot of unique requirements in North Dakota. I don’t know that they’re unique to North Dakota, but they represent a subset of what all pipeline operators would have to deal with.

That’s a really good problem definition. Let’s talk a little bit about the solution. What’s the nature of the solution? How is iPIPE going about solving these problems? Maybe I can tee this up a little bit, because I have some background in technology commercialization.

Basically, you’ve got some kind of technology that performs a job, but there’s a distance you have to travel in maturing that technology to make it commercially viable, both for the vendor and for the operator, and yet still drive the value that you’re trying to get to.

That’s often the hardest part of technology development is that last leap from, “I’ve got something that does something,” to, “It’s actually adding value to the industry.” What’s y’all’s solution for that problem?

Jay:  On your point, Russel, we call that the Valley of Death of commercialization. You’re right. To take it from…

Russel:  [laughs] Jay, I have a number of friends that I have worked with over many decades that have done commercialization, and that comment, “Valley of Death,” would be very near and dear to their experience.

Jay:  [laughs] It’s just a fact of life, unfortunately. You might have a technology that is ready to go, but it hasn’t been applied commercially yet. To get it that last step of the way, as you just said, Russel, that’s often the biggest step in the whole development process.

Russel:  I think the other thing that is true in the pipeline business is the operators are, by their nature, very risk-averse, and that’s for good reason. Risk means potential bad outcome and change is risk.

Anytime I’m trying something new, that raises my risk profile until I’ve figured out exactly what it is, the value it delivers, and how to implement and manage it as a program. Till I get there, my risk actually goes up before it goes down.

Jay:  Absolutely. That is another unique aspect of this program. I don’t think we’re entirely unique. There are some other organizations that dwell in this area.

I think we’re one of the few organizations that actually is bold enough to apply these risky new ventures, emerging technologies, to live operating pipelines. I guess we’ll get there, to that part of the description, soon.

Russel:  That’s actually one of my next questions, is how is iPIPE unique in terms of its program, versus other types of industry partnerships?

Jay:  We feel we are unique in that we’re actually operating this as a technology selection program. Russel, I’ll bet you’ve watched a popular ABC television show called “Shark Tank.” I think I can say that.

Russel:  Oh, yeah, I have definitely watched Shark Tank.

Jay:  Shark Tank is a great show, and they’ve got a great format. It’s wildly popular in new episodes and in syndication. The business people love it, because what it’s doing is bringing forth new ideas that otherwise wouldn’t see the marketplace, and bringing them forth before a panel of experts.

We are taking that model and applying it, loosely, to this iPIPE program. We get out and research technologies year round that might fit our mission. I have a technology scout on staff whose sole job it is to go out and research technologies that maybe they haven’t even thought might fit with pipelines, but we want to reach out to them anyway.

We bring them forth, we coach them through our request for proposal process. It’s a year-long process of bringing them up to speed on what the pipeline operator’s needs are. Then we bring the best of those forward to sit before this panel of experts.

One representative from each member company serves as our shark tank panel, if you will, and they hear the proposals, the presentations. They then select the ones that they think best fit their needs and best fit that open slot in their tool belt. What are they missing that they need?

We go fund those technologies. When I say fund, I have to be a little careful with that. Yes, we do offer cash funding, but it’s not a handout. Because we are helping these technologies develop and hone their product, we’re asking for some skin in the game.

We want the technology providers to come and treat this as a co-investment. It’s a co-development effort. We ask for very little in return, but we do want them to have skin in the game.

What we want is not a sales pitch, not a sale, not treat it like a sale, but we want them to come to us and let us help them co-develop this promising product. That’s step one.

Step two, then, is we actually offer them live, operating pipelines, volunteered by our members, upon which they can develop those technologies. Now, that’s really, if I’m to pick a single most unique aspect of iPIPE, I think that’s it.

We’re using their actual pipelines that are actually transporting valuable fluids, and sometimes waste fluids, across the countryside. What better sandbox, what better laboratory can you have to represent real conditions than real, live, operating pipelines?

Finally, while we’re developing these technologies on live, operating pipelines, we’re also giving them feedback, instantaneous feedback. “We like this. We don’t like that. We need more of this kind of thing, and we need less of that.”

These technologies are honed and tuned just as a process of being selected and partnering with us. In the end, of course, the technology providers, if they are successful, have a waiting and long line of customers ready to contract with them, if they’re successful.

Russel:  Man, you’ve just said a mouthful. I want to unpack that a little bit, if we might.

You talked about the partner companies actually making their pipelines available to — I’m just going to say — wring out and figure out how to make these technologies viable.

That’s a big contribution. That is a very big contribution. That’s probably the hardest thing for any new technology vendor to do is get access to real-world systems that they can mature their technology on.

How do you y’all do this? I would assume it’s some kind of combination between, “Here’s a pipe we’re going to test this on,” and yet, “We’re going to run this like a research project, like an experiment. We’re going to set up some controls,” and all that kind of stuff. Is that kind of what you guys are doing?

Jay:  Yeah, you’re right on it, Russel. We are fortunate to have some members who are like-minded, and they want to offer their pipelines.

Now, recognize — and I think you already did, Russel, with what you just said — it’s not only on in-kind cost from them. They have to contribute the labor to make this work.

They not only contribute the labor to make this work — because our members have to participate — they actually have to send field crews out to help either install these technologies, if that’s required, or ground truth, if we’re doing remote monitoring, for example. There’s labor invested.

What most people don’t recognize is there’s also a significant potential — an almost unavoidable potential — for the companies to lose out on revenue while we’re testing these technologies.

They may have to shut down their pipeline for a short time to install the technologies or to vet the results of the technologies. This is a unique bunch of operators who are willing to do that.

Russel:  No doubt. Just the cost of implementation, something as simple as putting a pressure transmitter on a pipeline, particularly if that pipeline’s buried 10, 15 feet, that’s very much nontrivial. That’s an expensive undertaking.

Jay:  I’ll bet most of your listeners understand what that requires for buried pipeline is typically going out and using a Hydrovac unit to make us a hole so that we can get that equipment down to the buried pipeline. As you said, that is no trivial expense or process.

Russel:  There’s other things that are more benign around the pipe, like image analysis and such. Even so, pipeliners are going to have to share data that they consider confidential and proprietary. They may have challenges with accessing data or making that data available. To me, that aspect of what you’re doing at iPIPE is probably the most compelling part.

It’s also the thing that creates the most opportunity, because at the end of the day, if you get it working on a real pipeline and you can build the case — you’ve got the research, the results, and all that, and say, “Here’s what we were actually able to accomplish” — that’s extraordinarily valuable.

Jay:  Agreed. I think the reason that we are successful in that aspect of data sharing, and sharing GIS files and information about each other’s pipelines is because all of these pipeline operators recognize one immutable fact. That is, they’re all facing the same challenge.

There is some public pressure. There is some wayward public narrative surrounding pipelines, largely incorrect, but they have to fight against that. It is the safest mode of transport of these fluids. The pipeline operators recognize that they’re not doing themselves any favors by treating that as competitive space.

Once they opened up within iPIPE, they all recognized — and they’ve admitted this to me — that once they recognized the value in sharing this information in a trusted space, behind closed doors, they really latched onto that, and now, they want to make more of that.

It’s noncompetitive space. Once they recognized that, they banded together, and they realized they had the same problems to solve.

Russel:  Right, exactly. The other thing you mentioned, too — and I want to talk about this a little bit — is basically the problem is two things, prevent leaks and detect them. I want to talk a little bit more about leak prevention, because, to me, that is a much harder thing to do.

Leak detection’s hard enough, in and of itself, just to get very highly reliable and repeatable results, but being able to prevent leaks, to me, that’s even a harder challenge. What are some of the initiatives you guys are looking at in leak prevention?

Jay:  I can talk about some broad areas, but first, let me say, you’re absolutely right. The challenge that these members have given themselves and given us here at the EERC as their technology scouts is, “Every year, we want you to come up with an even assortment of leak prevention and leak detection technologies.” That is a high challenge.

The leak prevention technologies are much fewer and far between than the leak detection, and that is because you’re trying to predict the future. You’re trying to do things that make these pipelines absolutely foolproof, lock tight, and it’s a very tall challenge.

Getting to your question, Russel, what are some of the broad areas of leak prevention? We’re looking at things like machine learning applied to big data.

If you ingest all sorts of data that might have secondary or tertiary effects on the health of that pipeline, be it overhead power lines — high voltage power lines — be it the proximity of significant quantities of earthmoving equipment to a certain region, be it a fault — stability of ground in any certain seismic zone.

These are all big data things that we can feed in and let machine learning or artificial intelligence process, looking for clues that might give us indication of higher risk zones.

Once we know those higher risk zones, then we can apply additional layers of protection to those pipeline segments. It all starts with knowing, where are my high-risk zones?

One flavor of protection, of prevention, is machine learning, just ingesting huge amounts of data to show us the path to where we have to be most guarded.

Russel:  To me, again, that in and of itself is a fascinating conversation. When you start pulling data together that is normally not pulled together — my in line inspection data with my geo mapping and geologic data with my pressure cycling data on the pipe — nobody, I think, in our industry right now even really knows what you might be able to do with that.

Jay:  Correct. I want to be careful I keep some of my powder dry here, because I think you want to talk about this as you unpack it.

There are several other technologies that we’re considering right now, maybe that technology providers haven’t even considered, as we think about what would really help us?

What would fill that hole in our tool belt? How can we look at different aspects of preventing damage to pipelines, preventing insufficient or inadequate installation practices, preventing ground shifts that, through no fault of our own, are just natural?

There’s lots of different aspects we can look at for prevention, and therefore, lots of technologies arise.

Russel:  Just to the listeners, you should consider this a teaser, because one of the things we’re going to be doing with Jay is we actually have a six-part episode designed to walk people all the way through what iPIPE is, how their program is implemented.

We’re going to talk to some members, we’re going to talk to some vendors, and we’re going to talk about some of the technologies that can be talked about and some of the successes over the course of this six-part episode, so just consider that a teaser.

We’ll set that aside so you can come back and listen to those episodes later. Jay, I’d like to wrap this up by asking you what are the short-term — the 2020-to-maybe 2022 — goals for iPIPE?

Jay:  Short-term goals, we would like to really push the envelope. If we don’t encounter a failure now and then, we’re not pushing ourselves hard enough. That means we’re not reaching far enough over the horizon, so I have a twofold goal. We have a twofold goal.

One, let’s really push over the horizon and look for something completely out of the box. Is that augmented reality? Is that big data? Is that artificial intelligence? Is that advanced instruments on a satellite on orbit? I don’t know yet, but these are things that we’re thinking about. We want to push, push, push.

Second, we want at the same time to have some successes come of this. If we have a program that produces no successes and fills no holes in our tool belt, then we haven’t succeeded. I’m happy to say that we have already had at least two successes that I think we’ll unpack in another episode.

For now, that’s our two goals — push, push, push, and at the same time, let’s come up with an occasional success, so that we have an actual new tool in the tool belt of industry, perhaps each year, so that we can achieve continuous improvement.

Russel:  I think that’s an awesome set of goals. Jay, I think for this episode, we’ll wrap it up here. If somebody wants to find out more about iPIPE and the program, how would they do that?

Jay:  You can always call me. My number is on your podcast website, but maybe an easier way is go to www.ipipepartnership.com. That’s spelled just like it sounds, ipipepartnership.com.

There’s a good summary of what we’re doing, of the media articles being written about us, of some of our successes. It contains information on our current members, and that is evolving every week, so keep checking back frequently.

Russel:  Great, Jay. Thanks for coming on, and I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of this.

Jay:  Great. Thanks, Russel. I appreciate the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to it as well.

Russel:  I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Jay Almlie. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.

If you’d like to support this podcast, the best way to do that’s to leave us a review. You can do that on iTunes or whatever smart device podcast app you happen to use to listen. If you want instructions, go to pipelinerspodcast.com.

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Russel:  If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know on the Contact Us page at pipelinerspodcast.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.

Transcription by CastingWords

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