This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features PRCI president Cliff Johnson returning to the Pipeliners Podcast to discuss the latest pipeline research projects and PRCI initiatives to advance the industry forward.
Listen to this episode to learn more about what PRCI is focusing on, how the new Emerging Fuels Institute is supporting pipeline operators to thrive in the forthcoming hydrogen economy, the various opportunities to advance pipeline leak detection using new methods and technology, what can be done to close the safety gap to reach zero incidents, and more timely topics.
PRCI Update: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Cliff Johnson is the president of the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI). Connect with Mr. Johnson on LinkedIn.
- The PRCI (Pipeline Research Council International) is the preeminent global collaborative research development organization of, by, and for the energy pipeline industry. [Read more about the PRCI collaborative research projects, papers, and presentations.]
- Emerging Fuels Institute, established in April 2021, provides PRCI members the opportunity to execute the research needed to ensure the safe transportation and storage of the next generation of energy, such as hydrogen, renewable natural gas (RNG), and other potential gas and liquid fuel sources that will help meet the world’s energy needs while reducing the impact to the environment.
- Materials Property Verification (MPV) is the process of identifying the fundamental make-up — or DNA — of a piece of pipe based on existing information such as as-built drawings, pipe books, mill certificates, hydro test pressure records, etc.
- ILI (Inline Inspection) is a method to assess the integrity and condition of a pipe by determining the existence of cracks, deformities, or other structural issues that could cause a leak.
- Corrosion in pipeline inspection refers to a type of metal loss anomaly that could indicate the deterioration of a pipe. Inline inspection techniques are used to evaluate the severity of corrosion.
- Cracks in pipeline inspection refer to breaks, splits, flaws, or deformities in the surface of a pipe. Inline inspection tools are used to evaluate the severity of the crack.
- NDE (non-destructive evaluation) uses quantitative measurements to identify a defect in a pipe. Measurements focus on the size, shape, and orientation of the defect and take into account the physical characteristics of the pipe.
- Leak Detection is the process of monitoring, diagnosing, and addressing a leak in a pipeline to mitigate risks.
- Leak Detection Systems (LDS) include external and internal methods of leak detection. External methods are based on observing external factors within the pipeline to see if any product is released outside the line. Internal methods are based on measuring parameters of the hydraulics of the pipeline such as flow rate, pressure, density, or temperature. The information is placed in a computational algorithm to determine whether there is a leak.
- Sandia National Laboratories is a science and technology research facility. National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia operates Sandia National Laboratories as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to support numerous federal, state, and local government agencies, companies, and organizations.
- International Energy Agency (IEA) works with countries around the world to shape energy policies to support global markets.
- Access their referenced report, Climate Resilience Policy Indicator.
- Colonial Pipeline Cybersecurity Incident: In May 2021, a cyber attack was launched against Colonial Pipeline that eventually resulted in the payment of $4.4 million to resolve the attack. The attackers gained access to Colonial’s systems and data through an unmonitored VPN by stealing a single password.
- The Bellingham Pipeline Incident (Olympic Pipeline explosion) occurred on June 10, 1999, when a gas pipeline ruptured near Whatcom Creek in Bellingham, Wash., causing deaths and injuries. Three deaths included 18-year-old Liam Wood and 10-year-olds Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade King.
- The NTSB accident report attributed the cause of the rupture and subsequent fire to a lack of employee training, a faulty SCADA system, and damaged pipeline equipment. [Read the NTSB Pipeline Accident Report]
- Listen to Larry Shelton describe his first-hand experience from the incident on Pipeliners Podcast #79.
- The Carlsbad Incident occurred in August 2000 when a 30-inch-diameter natural gas transmission pipeline operated by El Paso Natural Gas Company ruptured adjacent to the Pecos River near Carlsbad. The released gas ignited and burned for 55 minutes, causing loss of life to nearby campers. Following the NTSB investigation, several safety recommendations were made to improve safety. [Read the full NTSB Accident Report]
- The Marshall Incident refers to the Enbridge Incorporated Hazardous Liquid Rupture and Release, which occurred on July 25, 2010, in Marshall, Michigan. Read the full NTSB Accident Report.
- The San Bruno or PG&E Incident in September 2010 refers to a ruptured pipeline operated by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. The rupture created a crater near San Bruno, California, caused an explosion after natural gas was released and ignited, and resulted in fires causing loss to life and property. [Read the full NTSB Accident Report.]
- The Merrimack Valley gas explosion in Massachusetts in September 2018 was the result of excessive pressure build-up in a natural gas pipeline owned by Columbia Gas that led to a series of explosions and fires. [Read the preliminary NTSB Accident Report]
PRCI Update: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 195, sponsored by ROSEN, the global leader in cutting-edge solutions across all areas of the integrity process chain, providing operators the data they need to make the best Integrity Management decisions. Find out more about ROSEN at ROSEN-Group.com.
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. To show the appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener every episode. This week, our winner is Jay Jani with Con Edison. Congratulations. Jay, your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this signature prize, stick around to the end of the episode.
This week, Cliff Johnson returns to the podcast. Cliff is president of the Pipeline Research Council International and is joining us to give an update on PRCI initiatives and an industry outlook. Hey, Cliff, welcome back to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Cliff Johnson: Hey, Russel. I appreciate it, man. Thanks so much.
Russel: It has been a long time since you’ve been. We were almost to episode 200, and you were last on Episode 54 back in January of 2019. Why did we wait so long to get you back?
Cliff: Hey, man, this has been a very quick evolving industry. Apparently, I’m not important enough for you, Russel. You talk to other people about me. But hey, it’s good. It’s good to come back and to be in. This is great to see what you’re able to do, to see how the podcast has grown and flourished over the time.
You’re right. I was about a quarter way into the process now. It’s great to see what you’re doing, and it’s an important opportunity for us to educate the industry and to share learnings with each other through what you’ve been able to create. Thanks so much for setting up the space, Russel.
Russel: Listen, I appreciate that, Cliff. That’s awesome. I will say that this has gotten way bigger than I ever thought that it might. It’s been a fun ride, and it continues to be a fun ride.
Cliff: That’s good.
Russel: What’s new at PRCI?
Cliff: Let’s take a step back and make sure everybody understands who we are. PRCI is Pipeline Research Council International. It’s a global nonprofit dealing with the research for industry to make sure that we are developing the techniques, the tools, the processes, and people to ensure safety, integrity, and to reduce the environmental impact of our industry.
It’s an important factor that we keep pushing forward in. With PRCI, that’s our sweet spot, is really looking at those activities, and PRCI focuses on the pipelines and the associated facilities and the storage of this opportunity in looking at energy as a whole. Our life started back in 1952, and we’ve grown from there quite a bit.
The industry really has turned quite around, quite a corner, as most of us know, when you look at the emerging fuels conversation, which we’ll dive into in much more detail later on, there’s a lot happening in our space.
It’s how do we respond to some of the opportunities that we have with climate change and net-zero conversation, and then, unfortunately, in the last couple of years, the leak detection issues that have popped up. Some of these things are driving to huge behavioral shifts, and at PRCI, we’re responding to as much as well.
Our industry members have really been great leaders in this field for many, many years. Now it gives them a chance to step up some more and to make that next evolutionary change for our industry. How do we all move to a net-zero opportunity, which is what the ultimate goal is?
The underlying part of that is to make sure that we have the best and the safest systems out there. When they come to PRCI, what they’re coming into is an unbiased third-party research body. They always provide the solutions and the technologies that we need to keep moving forward.
I appreciate the opportunity today, Russel.
Russel: Yeah, so thanks for that. I just kind of operate in the assumption, Cliff, that everybody knows what PRCI is if they’re in the pipeline world, and I guess that’s probably not actually true.
You guys do really excellent — what I would call applied research. You’re doing research to solve problems or research to support a future vision. It’s not research for research’s sake, I would say.
Cliff: No, we don’t want to go out there and do pie in the sky stuff, just think “how big,” and do the big thinking stuff. That’s not what we do. We want to bring it down to the industry and to our members to really give them, like you said, something that they can put into practice as soon as possible.
There’s a philosophy that I live by. I’ve been in the association business now for 22 years both on the research side and on the standards development side. The one thing that’s constant is there’s a process.
What we want to do is look for problems and identify those issues, bring them in, research them, and solve them, put them back into the industry for a kind of germination, growth, and assay, develop, and evolve industry standard practices that become standards. From there, over time, if need be, they can become regulations.
What we do here at PRCI is that bedrock for change and development as we continue to move forward in our industry.
Russel: Cliff, I think it’s also worth noting that one of the things about pipelining is we tend to be risk-averse, right? For good reason, and that this kind of research is what’s required to facilitate change. We’re not going to do change without having a basis for it, and you create a basis for change.
Cliff: No, you’re exactly right. When you look at the research that we’re doing and what we’re talking about — let’s do a quick reminder — our industry right now is 99.99 percent safe. We’re talking about a very safe transportation and storage of this product.
However, if and when it gets out, then it creates a lot of unsettledness and uncertainty, especially in our public, of, “What are you doing? How do you make sure this operates?”
You’re right. We’re very conservative and very traditional because we can, because we are so good, but we need to go to the next level and really push to get that last 0.01 added into the equation.
We’ll never ever probably, ever truly reach zero, because that’s almost an impossible goal, but it has to be the goal that we carry. If we don’t shoot for zero and say, “Oops, we had a failure,” that’s not acceptable, and we have to change that paradigm and really push to that next level.
It’s exciting to be a part of PRCI. I’ve been here a little over 10 years now, and it’s a great ride to see our industry step up and to try to make the difference that is needed so much in our industry to continue to move the ball forward and to show what we can do to our public and our regulators’ face.
Russel: Yeah, cool. What’s new? What are you working on these days to respond to industry needs and issues and such? What’s new at PRCI?
Cliff: You look at PRCI, we are re-entrenching ourselves a little bit in some of our core research programs. We have a great diversity of activities across a number of areas, everywhere from corrosion, to design, materials and construction, to the integrity and inspection, to underground storage, subsea activities. It’s a very diverse range of research that we’re doing.
When you say, “What’s new?” one of the big critical areas that we’ve begun to move into is to define some of those big bogies in our industry. We have set up nine research objectives that drive the heart of our program.
How do we know the material properties of our pipes? Unfortunately, in the U.S., there’s still some systems that don’t have a full definition of all the pipelines they have. How do we do a better job of getting tools and processes that allow us to know more?
Another one we have is the improvement and continued advancement of inline inspection tools. One of the tools in the toolbox to ensure integrity is inline inspection. We will continue to make that better.
A third one is looking at the non-destructive evaluation and figuring out, how do we make that stronger? Those two go together hand-in-hand — inline inspection and NDE are complementary tools that help us advance, so we want to continue pushing that along as well.
We’re also looking at, how do we make sure of fitness for service for the vintage pipelines? We still have a large asset base in the United States that was put in the ground prior to 1970. Some of them are as old as the 1920s, so we want to make sure those things continue to last as long as they can, and if not longer, and push the boundaries there.
We also want to look into the leak detection and, how do we make sure nothing gets out of the line? If it does, and once it does get out of the line, we find it as soon as possible to be able to mitigate and to eliminate any leaks on the system whatsoever.
In that area, we want to make sure we reduce any emissions that are associated with it, so whatever emissions come out, either we want to find a way to capture those, or again, as I said, minimize and eliminate. We want to make sure that greenhouse gases isn’t part of the story for our systems.
We’ve also begun looking into the right-of-way monitoring. Still in the United States, third-party intrusions is a very large challenge for us, and so we want to make sure we minimize that and reduce it as far as we can, and get smarter in how we understand the right-of-way.
We’re also trying to figure out if we can do that from a land-based approach with on-the-ground sensors, looking at aerial with drones and manned vehicles. We’re even looking from a space point of view, which is kind of funky to think about, monitoring pipelines from space. We’re using satellites to understand the right-of-way, learn the signs where the hazards that are out there as well.
We’re also looking into, how do we make sure that the measurement in the facilities that we have are strong, if not stronger? Some of the areas of the greatest releases that we do have happen around the facilities. How do we tighten that down?
The last area we continue to look at is how do we use the new steels and ensure fitness for service for some of the newer steels that we’re putting in the ground to make sure they’re going to be there for the 50, 60, 70 years that we’re going to need for these right-of-ways.
From there, we’ve gone even one step further in a couple of key areas. We know that mechanical damage has been a significant challenge for our industry, so we developed a strategic research priority around that alone, which kind of cuts across the research objectives I just identified.
We go through that, and then the next one we look into is cracks. How do we understand the morphology, the sizes, the defects that are there to slow us down from the cracks that can impede us and really challenge us in our industry with the inline inspection tools?
Between the mechanical damage project and the crack project, we’re going to have for the first time ever some documentation that shows the current state-of-the-art inline inspection tools and their capabilities to assess and identify these key features.
The last area that we’re spending a lot of the time on right now — one of our research priorities — is the greenhouse gases and reducing that and to minimize the environmental impact of our systems. These are some of the areas we’ve moved into and some of the big steps forward that we’re taking.
With the research objectives and, now, the strategic research priorities, we have a much better grasp of where the industry needs to go and the challenges that we need to face to make sure that we have safe and efficient operations.
Russel: Cliff, when I listen to you go through that list, what I’m thinking is, what do you do with your free time?
Cliff: Free time is looking for pipelines that need problems.
Russel: It’s a very broad list of topics and the amount of subject matter expertise and capability to do research in all those domains, that’s a lot. It’s just a lot.
Cliff: It is truly a lot, Russel, you’re right, but we’re fortunate. We’re blessed at PRCI to have a great membership base that really has stepped up. The volunteers have really stepped up and are developing the ideas and the definition of the projects. Then, we are also fortunate to work with the best and the brightest minds around the world.
PRCI itself doesn’t do the research. We contract with external research parties. We have access to the best minds that are out there in our industry. It’s been a lot of fun to see that develop and grow and to see where we can go through that engaged membership. We’re very blessed to have a very actively engaged membership in a variety of areas, as you mentioned.
There’s a lot of work being done. At any one point in time, we roughly have 200 to 300 projects in queue. A lot of work is in process because it’s such an important activity. Our industry, again, really appreciates the need to get better and to continue to push. That’s the reason why they funded PRCI back in the ’50s, to begin challenging themselves to get even better.
Now that we’re here, almost 70 years later, you can see us reaching to the next level. We’re really driving, like I said, for 100 percent efficiency to make sure we get to zero. One of the jokes I share with some of my friends who challenge me on the pipeline business, they say, “You work for the oil and gas industry. Why is that?”
I say, “We’re the first environmentalist.” They all pull back and stop and look at me weirdly and I say, “No, really. We’re the first environmentalist because we want to make sure our product stays in line as long as possible. When it gets out, that’s a bad day. We don’t want that to happen, so we want to make sure the environment around us is as good or better than when we came the first time to put the pipes in. We’re truly the first environmentalist in those systems.”
They all go, “I understand.” It’s that little bit of that change of the mindset for what we’re trying to do.
Russel: That is a great, great, great tagline. Oil and gas, the first environmentalists. You know what, I believe that to be true.
Cliff: If you look at how they operate and the thought process that goes into it, again, if it ever gets out of line, you can see it on their face, the anguish, and the losses they have. They want to make sure that we’re integrity sound.
Russel: I think, too, that most people I work with in the pipeline — I tend to work with engineers and technicians, the boots on the ground, the folks doing the work — most of those people love the outdoors. They get upset when the outdoors are not being properly taken care of. They’re out there taking care of the outdoors every day.
Cliff: They go out of their way because, as you said, many of the friends that we have in our industry are the people who are out there hunting and fishing and on these lines, having a great time in the environment. It shows. That’s a desire that they have. It’s not just platitudes. It’s not just words for them. It really is the heart of who they are, is to ensure that the environment that they find is just as good, if not better than when they found it. Certainly, the initial intrusion into the ground for the pipeline, they want to make it as good or better as they can.
So, when there is a release, and, unfortunately, I’ve talked to a few of my friends after a few of the failures, the anguish in their voice, the loss that they feel, not only for their company but for the impact in the community, it’s unanimous. Every single one of them feels it. It’s something that we need to make sure it is better understood that we are trying to do the best that we possibly can.
Through efforts like PRCI and other groups, that’s what gets them there. My ultimate dream, someday, is to have operators with a seal, a PRCI logo on their home page, to show that they’re trying to get better. They’re trying and trying to push hard. They truly are. The work here is phenomenal. We’re just building on top of a very nice pie already.
Russel: I want to ask a theoretical question because I want to understand a little bit more about how you might approach a question. I recently had somebody on the podcast who runs dogs to do leak detection. I would categorize what they do with K-9s as micro leak detection. You only, typically, call out dogs if you can’t find it any other way.
Russel: That’s how our business approaches it. When I first came across dogs that did leak detection, I’m like, I never would have thought of that but once you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. I think, with dogs, you don’t really have any standards. You don’t really have a lot of standards because there’s not a lot of research around what their capabilities are.
If somebody wanted to say, I want to put a program and I want to back it with research around how to run dogs and what their capabilities really are, how would you frame something like that out?
Cliff: That’s an interesting question. It’s fun to think about how do you think about thinking? When you see those kinds of questions, you can know that those dogs are trained in a variety of different ways. Police dogs have the same kind of training that our dogs do along our pipeline.
It’s that olfactory training. They have a great nose, but you want them to find just what your’re looking for, which is that methane leak, and that smell of gas in the olfactory. That’s what you want to do. The training, you’d be able to do.
The verifications and the testing you could do is to test them with various smells. Some dogs are great with narcotics. Other dogs are great with oil and gas.
Russel: The way they actually do this with the dogs is they have a special odor that they inject into the pipeline that does not have any impact on the fluid but that the dogs are trained to find.
Cliff: Exactly. You want them to be able to discern that from all the other smells in nature they’re going to be running into. That’s the smell you want them to do. That refinement training, that verification of, can they sense A versus B, that’s what you want them to do. That’s how you do the research, is what can they smell and how little of it that you release, can they smell what level?
Like you said, it’s the micro leak. Those are the hardest ones for us to find. When can they sense it? Is it just with the parts per billion or is it parts per thousand? When do they first sense it?
Russel: The other thing that would be true, I would think, is that every dog would be a little different.
Cliff: It will, depending on the breed.
Russel: The dog and the person handling the dog and the level of maturity in the training of the dog, right?
Cliff: You start with the breeds. Certain breeds have better olfactory senses than others, so you start with the breed and dwindle it down.
Russel: I guess you would want to build a standard around, this is how I certify that this dog can detect to this level. That kind of thing.
Cliff: There actually is a certification process that you can see for police dogs and/or bomb-sniffing dogs for the military. They actually have a program where they train them to be able to sense certain things. They have to pass a test before they go out in the field. Our industry can develop the same kind of protocols and procedures, of here’s the level they need to be able to acquire.
Russel: The guys that run the dogs have those procedures and protocols. They’ve just never been verified or supported by industry research so they can’t really be certified as part of the leak detection program because that doesn’t exist.
Cliff: We can set industry standards very easily and do the research that verifies that dogs can get to this level. Here’s a good level. Here’s great, and here’s, somebody else needs to come out and do this. That’s very easy to do.
Actually, we do that, to some degree, currently. When you look at inline inspection tools, it’s the same kind of concept. What can they find and what can they not find? It’s the same philosophy, just changing it to a dog. It’s the same philosophy you see with drones. Can they see certain things and can they not? This is not something that’s unusual for our industry. It’s very common for all of our tools to have pass/fail criteria.
As dogs become a little bit more common in the utilization…It is a beginning kind of thing. People are beginning to get more into it. You see a lot of use in Latin America with dogs. One of the reasons is because it’s very congested corridors. We have beautiful right-of-ways up here in the United States. When you go down to Brazil, they’ll have an apartment complex on top of the pipeline. I mean smack dab on top of the pipeline. For us to be able to inspect that with our traditional tools is probably not going to be the best way. To get a dog to run through that facility or run through that building will give you a chance that you wouldn’t have otherwise. There’s some things we can definitely do.
Russel: My thesis is that with the push coming out of the new administration, and I think this push is going to be sustained even beyond this administration to detect all emissions and to find them and clean them up. Where we’ve been focused is on finding a leak quickly, but this is like, “I gotta find all the small leaks.” That’s a whole different kind of program.
Cliff: You’re exactly right.
Russel: I can see dogs being a big piece of that, potentially.
Cliff: We’re going to see a lot of evolutions in that and I think canines is one answer. Using the various light spectrums out there, where the hyperspectral sensors will be part of it as well, so you can see visually down the line of the pipeline.
Through the light spectrums, you can see, “This doesn’t look right. We have a blue color where it should be green.” That means, “Okay, go look there.” Because that’s what you’re going to see.
One advantage that dogs have currently is they can do a point location pretty well if the plume is small. Now, if it’s been released for a while, and it’s a small leak that hasn’t been found, they’ll find a general area where the leak is.
It may not be able to find the leak. They’ll just be able to know that a leak has occurred. There’s a difference there, and it’s what you got to figure out is, hopefully, if you’re using dogs, you’re looking for something that has happened recently, and it was a small leak.
Russel: I think that’s one of the other reasons they use the syn injection. Because if they use the syn injection, then it’s recent.
Cliff: Exactly. Depending on how big the spill is, it could still be dissipated to the soil and the dogs would pick up the residue for a while, depending on what it is exactly. It’s an interesting question, and it’s an opportunity for us.
Russel: That’s very much the stuff that PRCI would do, right?
Cliff: That’s the space we want to play in, is the tools that we need. Whatever tools we’re going to use for integrity, we want to help verify, test, and set programs that justify using them in a certain way. If it’s a dog or whatever it is.
Russel: Do the fundamental research that can lead to standards.
Cliff: If you can do it right, then we know we can repeat it, and across the industry, it can get better, which is the ultimate goal.
Russel: It’s repeating it to a standard. That’s really the trick, right?
Cliff: Initially right now, dogs are being used by operators as a one-off, which is what it should be. And over time, we’ll go, “Hey, can we make this more widely utilized?” If that’s so, then you need some industry standards. That’s first going to be researched.
Russel: I appreciate that. That actually helps clarify for me PRCI’s mission. I wanted to talk to you about emerging fuels. I know we talked about that off microphone, and I know you guys are looking at that because you look at trends. What can you tell me is going on around pipelining and emerging fuels?
Cliff: There’s a lot happening in that space. It’s nothing new, to be totally transparent. Emerging fuels started back in the ’70s. We’ve been looking at hydrogen quite a bit in that space. As a matter of fact, PRCI had some research back in that time period, so this isn’t anything brand new or revolutionary. “Oh, hydrogen, what have you been doing?”
We actually did a lot of work with the last fuel embargo back in the ’70s. You remember back then with those long monstrous gas lines? There was a push to figure out what’s next, and so PRCI began to do research on hydrogen back then.
Fast forward a few more years to the ’80s, we were the first ones — and I guess in the late ’90s — the first ones to do work on ethanol and do research on, how do we move that?
As we saw with those two things, today the push is greater. It’s more consistent, and you’re seeing a larger push by a lot of parts across the world. PRCI has members everywhere across the globe. In Europe, they’re much more advanced. They say in 2030, we’ll have a hydrogen economy. In Latin America, not quite so; they’re still trying to figure out how to use more natural gas. In the U.S., pockets. In 2030 for California and New York. You’ve got Texas, who says, “Not yet. We’re not going to even talk about it.”
PRCI has challenged our members to ensure that we’re not an impediment to the next energy economy, whatever it may be. We think hydrogen’s going to play a role. Renewable natural gas is going to play a role. How do you move into it from a research point of view?
There’s a lot of research that needs to be done to be able to transport hydrogen efficiently and effectively, and a lot of research needs to be done to store it. We’ve established the Emerging Fuels Institute as a subset within PRCI that will be a consortium and allow our industry members and those non-members who are very engaged in this conversation to participate.
Right now we have just begun, and we’re just getting the ball rolling on it, so it’s just in the formative stages. We have a kick-off meeting, and it will begin shifting the conversation on how do we get into this? PRCI’s taking an approach that we need to do a core research program, which I talked about in the beginning of the podcast. We’ve got to focus on our technology, as we’re going to talk about here in a few minutes. Also, we need to help our industry move into the emerging fuels and figure out what do we need to do to ensure the safest, most efficient transportation?
All three of those are going to enable our industry to move to net-zero and to be a positive participant in the climate change conversation. That’s what we’re trying to do right now in the emerging fuels space is to build on our history.
Again, nothing new in this space. There’s a lot of work that we’ve already done; there’s still more to be done to move as fast as we need to. Partner with appropriate partners across the world, but also develop the Emerging Fuels Institute to very tightly, very cleanly move us into that next opportunity.
Russel: What are some of the key issues for hydrogen if you’re going to start incorporating it into the existing pipeline networks? What are the kinds of things that come up?
Cliff: That’s a great question. The number one challenge — and I mentioned it a little bit earlier about unknown pipes — is the material properties is going to play a key factor. We know there’s certain steels that are going to be impacted by hydrogen, by their composition and their construction over the time periods that aren’t going to be able to move hydrogen.
We need to understand which ones those are for sure and do work in that space. We’ve very excited to partner with the Department of Energy at Sandia National Labs on that project. They have a huge testing facility that will allow us to put pipe steels into the hydrogen environment to see how they react.
We have created an industry advisory committee for that effort. With the DOE and PRCI, we’re going to get a good materials database on what steels can and could move hydrogen and which ones really shouldn’t move hydrogen. That will help us understand how much of our systems in the United States have the potential to move hydrogen. Is it 10 percent? Is it 100 percent? What is it that we need to think about that we need to move through that process?
Once you get beyond that, you get to some deeper technical questions on how is hydrogen going to impact some of the elastic seals? What is it going to mean, and how does it permeate the steel? What do we need to think about on the coating side? You get into some of the deeper hard questions there.
Also you have to, on the other side is, look at the storage facilities. When you get the hydrogen underground, how is it going to interact? Is there some microbial excitement with hydrogen that we haven’t seen with natural gas that creates more problems, more corrosion capabilities in that space?
As many of your listeners know, we’ve done a good job for the last many, many years to keep hydrogen out of our line, because we know hydrogen embrittlement is one of those key concerns. A good engineering friend of mine told me, “Cliff, we’re going to move into something that we’ve avoided for 20 years, trying to keep out of the system, no matter what.”
Russel: And we’ve been spending millions of dollars to keep this stuff out of the pipelines, and now we’re going to put it in the pipelines. Isn’t there a reason we’re trying to keep it out of the pipelines? That kind of goes to my fundamental question.
Cliff: That goes into the next thing. You have the materials properties, you’ve got all these things, but the underlying question that we’ve had for decades now is hydrogen embrittlement.
That’s a key factor that we’ve said, keep the hydrogen out because when it gets mixed with everything else, it’s going to create hydrogen embrittlement. That’s what you don’t want to see in the pipe. That means it falls apart.
We’ve got to get that question answered as well, and so there’s a lot of research that we’re going to begin doing this summer that begins looking at how do we advance our steels? Do we protect them with internal coatings and lining? Do we find other ways to keep this hydrogen away from the steel? If the hydrogen and the steel get together, that embrittlement question becomes a real challenge that we need to walk into.
One of the other things I’ll throw out there just as an aside: we need to look at our inspection tools. As you put hydrogen in the system, when you look at the inline inspection tools that we have today… There’s a video on YouTube, if you go into hydrogen and magnets, you get to watch the magnet dissolve in real-time. It is the funkiest, coolest thing, but that’s one of the challenges for inline inspection tools. The magnets that they use don’t work well in hydrogen right now.
How do they create something that can allow them to move freely to get the readings that they need without failing inside the system because of the hydrogen?
Russel: Oh, the little details, the little details.
Cliff: That’s the thing. The policy about we’re going to go to a hydrogen economy is important, but it’s at such a high level of the big picture. Now we’ve got to figure out the worker bees. How does that actually work when the rubber meets the road — pun intended — of how do you move through this?
When you look at the hydrogen and all the other facets that we’ve got to think about here, there’s a lot of unknowns still. The research portfolio that we just put together, that’s kind of a strawman. It’s probably 75, 80 projects, just that alone, today, before we start learning more on what’s next to be done, so we’ve got a lot to do.
Russel: This reminds me a lot of the electric car conversation in the late ’70s/early ’80s.
Cliff: There’s a lot of similarities.
Russel: At that time, it was fantasy.
Russel: Now, electric cars are part of what we have in the tool set.
Russel: Right? They’re becoming fairly well understood. I think there’s some things about the afterlife of electric cars, if you will, that we haven’t figured out and we don’t understand the impacts of because they haven’t been around long enough yet, but we’re beginning to get there.
Hydrogen, to me, is kind of the same thing. It makes sense as a direction. It’s a fuel that has a lot of very interesting benefits, and it’s reasonably abundant, right? Again, we don’t begin to understand all the details and implications of what does it mean to move to a hydrogen economy.
Cliff: You made a couple of interesting comments that I’m going to focus on. The word “abundant” is interesting, because abundant how?
Russel: Yeah, exactly.
Cliff: Hydrogen production is questionable, so this is a non-PRCI question: this is a bigger policy question. How do you make the hydrogen is a real, hard question for a lot of people. If you do the various types of hydrogen that are out there — and one of the main sources of hydrogen, of course, is using water and breaking the water down. If you use water, which is a limited resource, for hydrogen production in pipelines, then you can’t use the water for drinking water. There’s a trade-off.
Russel: Or irrigation.
Cliff: Irrigation. This was the same problem we ran into ethanol, if you remember. The big push to ethanol was beautiful until we realized, “Oh, we’re going to use our corn stock for ethanol and not for making food.”
You’re a Texan, like I am. You remember back when that first came out, there was this big cry that, “Oh my gosh, the cost of tortillas has gone up by 20 percent.” That was real, because we used corn for a different purpose besides making food. We made ethanol. At the time, I kind of chuckled because I didn’t think about it, but yeah, that’s what it was.
We start using water for hydrogen production? Oh my gosh, let’s stop and think about that. Think about the droughts in the western United States.
Russel: Maybe that could offset the rising sea levels.
Cliff: [laughs] That’s what you’ve got to figure out, where the water’s all going to go. That’s one question.
If you use the most abundant source for hydrogen, which is natural gas, the green people who like the environment don’t like that answer, because you’re using a hydrocarbon, which is an evil, horrible sin. That’s one of the most efficient ways to make hydrogen is natural gas.
Russel: It’s right there in the name.
Russel: It’s a hydrocarbon. That’s a hydrogen carbon molecule.
Cliff: It’s the best way to do it, but there’s political challenges with it, so a policy level question, so very large, and very entertaining to watch them get stuck around the axle, because that’s what happens, like, “I like the idea of hydrogen, but not from this source.”
I’m like, “Well, you can’t do that, because where are you going to get it from, exactly, and how are you going to do this?” Right now, what you’re looking at in the United States is a blend of hydrogen to transport. We’re probably not going to build a whole lot of 100 percent hydrogen lines unless something unusual happens. We’re going to blend it with natural gas to transport it, so how does that look?
Or we’re going to blend it with ammonia. Stop for a second. Ammonia. If you remember back just briefly, ammonia’s what they used to blow up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. That’s a pretty caustic, destructive thing to be moving around. You have hydrogen, which is also highly flammable, so that’s an idea. Also, we haven’t thought about the repercussions of putting ammonia in our line yet. We’re going to do research on that. What’s going to be the challenges there?
For PRCI to call it the Emerging Fuels Institute, we did it on purpose. We didn’t call it the Hydrogen Institute, because we believe there’s probably multiple things to come down the pike still before we understand. We want to make sure that the pipeline infrastructure globally is as strong, if not stronger.
Let’s think about this for a second. If we’re not moving energy by pipelines, it’s got to be on trucks. It’s going to be on rail cars. It’s going to be on boats. Are you serious? That’s how you want to do it? The safety factors there pale in comparison to the pipelines.
Russel: Yeah. Again, you make really, really good points. I think this is a fascinating conversation, and I think you make some really good points around the difference between the policy-making decisions and the actual implementation realities. Those two things are not necessarily aligned.
Cliff: I used to work on Capitol Hill as a staff person…
Russel: That’s a process, right?
Cliff: Yeah, it truly is. I was a staffer on Capitol Hill, and I worked in the State Capitol in Texas as a staffer as a 22, 23-year-old, and I made laws. That’s what I wrote. I wrote laws. Did I have all the facts about me? Probably not, but I knew enough to write a law.
Policy is done the same way. They know as much as they possibly can when they make it, but these kind of things, so behind the scenes, they don’t have a clue what they’re not thinking about.
Russel: Oh, yeah.
Cliff: What we have to do is be willing to conversate with them and have a deep understanding and a deep dialogue of, “Okay, we want to be supportive. 2030, an arbitrary number. Just because you think it sounds good, it may not be attainable right away.”
I have a member company of ours who told me yesterday, “Cliff, I’ve got to have hydrogen in my pipeline in 2025.” That’s less than three years away. Realistically, how does that work?
There’s some of these real struggles that we’ve got to think through to be the assistant, because we cannot be the “no” for the new economy. We want to make sure that we’re the “yes” for the new economy, but there is some significant research that needs to be done to get us to that point.
Just think about this. As you’ve heard in Texas — and there’s a reason why there’s a recent legislative bill in that state capitol that said, “You cannot eliminate natural gas from new build.” In California, in some cities, you can’t use natural gas after 2030 in homes.
What are you going to use to power the house? How are you going to get the heat? That hasn’t been solved. They just set the policy, now go. The industry’s trying to figure it out. What do you do? “Well, we’re going to use electricity.” “Okay, great. Where do you use electricity from? Oh, you use natural gas to make your electricity.”
These conversations are disconnected. They really aren’t thinking it through, and we’ve got to bring them together. We really need to sit down and have a conversation. That’s not a strength that we have in the United States today. We don’t have good conversations. We have good shouting matches, but not good conversations.
Russel: I think it’s interesting. We have good conversations at the actual get-it-done level.
Cliff: We do.
Russel: And if you work around policy makers, and you work around policy implementers at that level of state and national government, you tend to find that they’re slow moving and lethargic, and you want that in your government. Efficient government is not a good thing, in my opinion. You want that really slow, deliberative, thoughtful process. I think we do a good job of that at the worker level. It’s more at the national policymaking level that it’s all messed up. We’ve fallen off of our first principles.
Cliff: The national level, and in some sense, unfortunately, the state of the house, too. In some states around the country, we have lost the idea that compromise is a good thing.
Cliff: We want to make that the demon of all evils. I’m like, “No, compromise is not a bad thing, and especially as we want to move to this brand new behavior.” To get to net zero, we’ve got to do multiple things, and if we get totally focused on just the hydrogen economy and ignore the infrastructure, that’s not going to be a win.
Russel: That’ll end up with a bad outcome.
Cliff: With a horrible outcome, because we’ll have a significant failure someplace due to a disregard of the infrastructure. We’ve got to make sure that we’re flourishing both at the same time.
I was a little bit disappointed — not surprised — in the infrastructure bill that President Biden is trying to push. There’s never a discussion about pipelines. Our pipeline infrastructure in the United States drives commerce. If there’s not a pipeline infrastructure, you’re not having commerce.
Russel: Just look at the recent Colonial incident, right?
Cliff: Exactly. That befuddled the East Coast for days.
Russel: Shut down commerce to a major portion of the United States.
Cliff: I live in Virginia, and gas prices soared overnight 30 cents. 30 cents.
Cliff: That’s crazy.
Russel: If that pipeline had been offline more than 7 to 10 days, it would have really gotten bad.
Cliff: If it had been more than 7 to 10 days, D.C. would have been closed. As you said before, might not be a bad thing, but D.C. would have been closed. It’s one of those things. That’s the reality. East Coast would have been closed. Major airports would have been done. The infrastructure isn’t thought about that way. Pipelines are unique. They are a huge public asset that’s privately owned.
Russel: They tend to be out of sight, out of mind, too, is the thing.
Cliff: For a long time, that worked for us. Our industry was so efficient and so good. We didn’t have a whole lot of failures. Things began to get a little bit unfortunate when we hit 2000. We had Carlsbad, New Mexico. We had Bellingham, Washington.
Take a 10 year leap. Then we have Marshall, Michigan. We have San Bruno. Unfortunate, horrible failures. Then, 10 years later, we have Boston. These are significant, horrible failures in our industry. Not normative, doesn’t happen very often, but when they do…
Russel: When they do, they’re a big deal.
Cliff: Unfortunately, when we fail, we go big. That’s what our public sees.
Russel: I want to ask you one last question before we wrap up here, Cliff. That is “What are you thinking the industry is going to look like in another 20 to 30 years?” “What are going to be the key things that are the new realities in the business” maybe is the right way to ask that.
Cliff: It’s interesting. Depending on who you talk to and what you listen to, there’s a lot of different conversations about where pipelines are. Pipelines will be part of our equation for a very long time. Then you look at the various energy sources, there’s a lot of variables on that.
The International Energy Agency based in Europe came out with a report a couple weeks ago, maybe a month ago now, talking about the climate change and how they wanted to progress. Some of that stuff in there was pretty shocking. If you have a chance to look at it, I’d encourage you to.
One of the things it said is no new construction of pipelines funded after 2030, to begin turning the tide to a more climate-neutral economy. This is unusual for that organization. Historically, this has been a very even approach, a very good resource for information on what really the next future looks like.
They’ve been saying consistently that between now and 2050, there’s still a huge role for hydrocarbons. Now there’s a little bit of turn in philosophy there and a new way of thinking. That’s a pretty bold statement. No new pipeline construction after 2030. That’s a pretty hard reality to deal with.
We also forget that our product isn’t just energy. It has more to it. When you produce liquids, oil, that becomes so much part of our economy and what you know, petroleum-based economies everywhere. The microphones that we’re talking on, the gas that was there…
Russel: You can’t build an electric car without hydrocarbon.
Cliff: You can’t.
Russel: You can’t have medicines without hydrocarbons. You can’t have clothing without hydrocarbons. I mean, it just goes. You can’t paint your house. You can’t put a roof on your house. I mean, it just goes on and on and on.
Cliff: There was a great video put together by an organization that showed the role of oil. What it is, it shows a guy driving into his house and walking in and things are disappearing. Showing how much product is across everywhere. The worst one is, of course, the final scene. He walks out. He’s got a Corvette. Of course, as we know, the Corvette bodies are made out of fiberglass. It all disappears like, “Oh, that’s horrible.” We just forget that it’s so ubiquitous in our life, that petroleum economy that we’ve created is critical.
Russel: We can’t even make steel without hydrocarbons. It’s really unfortunate that people don’t really understand how pervasive it is, or how important it is to our way of life.
Cliff: Let’s be transparent, though. It goes back to what you said a minute ago, we’ve been out of sight out of mind so well, so long, our public doesn’t know us.
Russel: That’s right.
Cliff: Now we’re trying to educate them, but it’s after we’ve had a failure and it’s hard to educate after you had an oops. Some of the new ads on TV that I really enjoy from the various operators from ExxonMobil to Chevron, some phenomenal pieces show what they’re doing and how they’re trying to change the world.
I really appreciate it. I appreciate the excitement they’re showing and the enthusiasm. I think that the future of our industry is really the 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds right now who are going to be moving into this space.
They’re going to look for how environmentally friendly we are since we are the first environmentalists. They’re going to be looking for how do we use data to make a difference? Can we use data that we’ve generated from years and years and years of work to be better, smarter, faster? Looking at artificial intelligence, where can we automate things that really make those systems stronger? How do we understand and inspect better?
It’s going to be bringing in that generation of the 20 to 30-year-olds today to help bring us to the future of the next 30 years. I see a great future for our industry as we bring more and more positive conversations and accept when we make a mistake.
Own it and say, “Look, we made a mistake. We’re going to get better.” and talk about it that way, versus trying to dodge and avoid, which happens unfortunately sometimes. Human nature, when you fail, you don’t want to admit it sometimes, but if we can, we’ll do a better job.
I see a very interactive conversation going forward because we’re going to have to have a true conversation about, “Okay, how do we move our product?” Pipelines are critical. I know there’s issues we need to be mindful of. We need to be very conscious of our public and be very open and sharing with them consistently on what we’re doing and how that makes their life better. Like we talked about a second ago, it covers so many things. It’s hard not to give a good story, but we need to tell it better and more consistently.
Research through PRCI is part of that. It’s how do we show that we want to keep challenging ourselves, to keep pushing, and really show that we can get better. We will get better. That’s what I see going forward.
Russel: Awesome. Look, Cliff, this has been awesome as always. Thanks so much for coming on. I think we should do it again but not wait two and a half years before we do it again.
Cliff: Hey, Russel, I hope we get together much sooner than that because if we do wait, it’ll be a shame because we have so many great things that we’ve done and accomplished in that time period. Let’s make a day sooner than that and look forward to having a conversation.
Russel, I appreciate what you’re doing. Thank you for helping our industry. Thank you for shining a light in the darkness sometimes and that everybody learns about what we’re doing. Through your efforts, it really helps bring that focus to us. Thank you so much.
Russel: Thank you. I appreciate it. It’s great to talk to you, Cliff.
Cliff: May you have a great day.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Cliff. 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.
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