Now in its 56th year, PRCI – Pipeline Research Council International – has led the way in the push for new technologies that have made the pipeline industry safer, more reliable and more efficient.
With energy issues playing an increasingly dominant role in our lives, PRCI is stepping up to meet that challenge in ways that might have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
PRCI’s 39 pipeline members include operating companies in the United States, Brazil, Finland, Netherlands, United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia. There are 26 gas transmission members, 11 oil members and two transporting both. PRCI has 14 associate members that include steel manufacturers, equipment and tool makers, vendors, and service providers. Four of these are full associate members that can participate in all PRCI research activities. The remaining ten technical program associate members have access to research being conducted under one or more of PRCI’s technical committees.
The project selection process occurs between PRCI’s March and September board meetings and involves member companies from the board of directors to the technical committees. The annual research program is ultimately determined by members who “vote their dollars” at two electronic votes over the summer and culminate in a final vote at the September board meeting. (For more information visit http://ballot.prci.org).
Beyond those projects selected at its March meeting, any board member may place a project on the ballot. If supported by at least one more member and if it acquires the base amount of funding (usually 85% of estimated project cost), it will become an approved PRCI project. In addition to their subscription fees that they are committed to pay, members can contribute supplemental dollars for projects they feel are of particular importance to them.
While members provide most of PRCI’s funding – $7.2 million of the $11 million budget for 2008 – other stakeholders, particularly the U.S. DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, (PHMSA) helps to augment the budget. PHMSA has co-funded about $20 million worth of research in the five years of their collaboration. They are now collaborating on eight projects. One is a welding program for high-strength steels (X100>) that is expected to be completed in 2010. PRCI is spending 24% more for research in 2008 than in 2006.
PRCI engages research firms around the world such as Southwest Research Institute, Battelle, or in the case of ethanol, CC Technologies of Columbus, OH, which have either bid on the work or with whom PRCI has extended a prior working contract. Today, PRCI has one of the largest pipeline research asset bases in the world, containing more than 1,700 reports with access to the leading researchers and state-of-the-art equipment.
PRCI was established in 1952 as the Pipeline Research Committee of the American Gas Association. Today, the non-profit organization’s ten-member staff is led by George W. Tenley, Jr., in his 10th year as president, and Art Meyer, an Enbridge executive serving the first year of a two-year term as chairman. In an interview with P&GJ, Tenley and Meyer outlined PRCI’s challenges and goals and made it clear that their members offer more than just funding: unparalleled expertise.
P&GJ: What are some of the key research projects PRCI is now involved in?
Tenley: Our primary focus is on work that will be delivered over a one-five-year period. Our historical, core focus has been on:
- Corrosion (internal and external) prevention and management.
- Stress corrosion cracking (SCC) identification, assessment, prevention and management.
- Development of tools for in situ and off-pipe inspection for damage and defects, and related techniques for evaluating and repairing identified defects.
- Development of reliability-based designs that will enable newly constructed pipelines to optimize in-service operations.
- Identification and prevention of external damage from human contact and geophysical threats.
- Keeping welding technology, application, and inspection abreast of the development of newer, higher-strength steels. This will be very important for the great construction build-out we’re seeing around the world where increasingly, the new supplies are in harsh environments.
- Reducing the emissions of NOx from compressor engines through improved combustion performance.
- Improving the accuracy of transmission measurement custody transfer.
- Increasing underground natural gas storage integrity and reliability to enable greater, more flexible deliverability.
Examples of our shorter-term focus are:
- Identifying, characterizing, and addressing the potential threats to pipelines from the transportation of alternative fuels such as ethanol; initial work on the issue is on potential SCC impacts; first results in 2008, follow-on work in 2009 looking at both blends and “neat” ethanol.
- Enabling the increased use of drag reducing agents in gasoline pipelines to allow greater throughput without increasing fuel usage or requiring new pipeline capacity.
- Using advanced materials in pipeline construction and repair, and associated welding techniques, particularly for pipeline construction in harsh environments.
Meyer: Safety and integrity have always been a strong area of focus, underpinning a very large portion of our research budget. As we look forward, there are tremendous levels of construction activity in the North American pipeline industry so we’re seeing increased interest among members in the areas of design and construction.
Another area where we expect to see activity move forward concerns CO2 pipeline design which relates to carbon capture and sequestration. Given the breadth of our membership, we expect a number of companies to apply their dollars toward these initiatives.
P&GJ: How has the role of PRCI evolved in recent years?
Tenley: We began in 1952 in the world of materials and materials performance, taking on the question of long-running brittle failures. From that base we’ve built many successful programs including those in design, construction, inspection, monitoring, defect and damage assessment and control, and damage prevention.
Our compressor program began in the 1980s and is the largest of our three facilities programs (measurement and underground storage are the others). It continues to be an important area for PRCI research with the largest part of the program focused on legacy, reciprocating engines and the need to cost-effectively meet current and pending air emission regulations, thus avoiding the premature replacement of vital horsepower while continually improving fuel efficiency.
A larger part of our program (72%) remains engaged on the pipeline side but the facilities side has been growing in recent years through member voting. But overall, our program – both pipelines and facilities – has a strong bias toward system integrity and reliability, both of which are core drivers for system productivity and life extension.
With the infusion of liquid members over the last five years, we have added a pump program within the compressor program to form the Compressor and Pump Station Technical Committee.
Meyer: The move in recent years to permit members to vote their subscription dollars toward their preferred projects has resulted in significant innovation and has caused the best and most widely supported projects to proceed. This relatively recent evolution was supported by existing members and has attracted many new members.
P&GJ: As you head for Berlin for a technical conference, what are your thoughts on making the “I” in PRCI truly representative of the international community?
Tenley: We’re very proud of the “I” in our name and determined to extend it. Gasunie from the Netherlands was our first international member in 1980. To sustain this model and meet our goal of greater technical diversity perspective, we need to do that in Europe and elsewhere including Asia and more in South America.
We have formal tripartite relationships with the European Pipeline Research Group (EPRG) whose greatest strength is in steel manufacturing, and the Research and Standards Committee of the Australian Pipeline Industry Association (APIA), best known for its strong materials program. The agreement calls for information sharing in all phases of research development and cost sharing on projects of strong mutual interest (e.g., we have co-founded welding projects with APIA.
As an affiliate organization of the International Gas Union, we are active on the R&D Task Force which will set the global strategy for pipelines at the International Gas Congress next year.
We also have an informal but very active and broad coordination with NYSEARCH, the research arm of the New England Gas Association, and the Operations Technology Development program administered by the Gas Technology Institute, under which we share research planning and project development where the distribution focus of those organizations intersects with the pipeline focus of PRCI (e.g., the internal inspection of unpiggable pipelines).
P&GJ: Is PRCI doing more in terms of research with non-operators and with foreign companies?
Tenley: As an international organization we seek to participate with companies all over the world, with a primary goal to gain them as members. We do look for co-funding partners regardless of region in order to both expand project funding but also to bring to the table as diverse a set of perspectives and capabilities as possible to optimize the research effort. These two aspects may intersect as in the case of our strain-based design project in which Nippon Steel participated in the project first as a co-funder and then, once on the project, joined PRCI as a Technical Program Associate Member.
We never seek co-funder participation solely for the funding; the co-funder must bring perspective and technical know-how to the effort. These two elements may come to the project via a large amount of “in-kind” funding involving equipment, system test beds, proprietary software, or technical expertise needed for the project.
P&GJ: What progress is being made in the study of ethanol’s corrosive effects on pipelines?
Tenley: Our initial research focus, through 2008, is on the technical issues associated with the transportation of various ethanol blends in existing pipelines, with the first inquiry into the role of stress corrosion cracking (SCC) in system integrity and reliability. Initial findings indicate that the E10 blend is resistant to SCC, and that no SCC has been observed in any blend in the absence of dissolved oxygen (this may offer opportunities to monitor SCC through oxygen monitoring).
Subsequent work in 2009 and 2010 will look at the issues associated with “neat” ethanol and the operating parameters under which ethanol can be transported by pipeline. The follow-on work will also consider the technical issues associated with building pipelines dedicated to ethanol service. Our belief is that by the end of 2010 we’re going to know what the operating parameters are. We’ll know what one has to do in order to ship any blend. With the presence at the table of several companies who are looking at a big investment commitment, I think we’re going to find out about it in the near term rather than the longer term.
We’re not doing this as an isolated ethanol inquiry. The kinds of tests that we’re running and the kinds of examinations we’re making will relate to biomass and any bio-type fuels. Should the political winds blow in a way that takes ethanol out of the mainstream, we’ll have relevant work going forward.
P&GJ: What is PRCI doing to help companies achieve a “greener” image?
Tenley: In the most general sense, our strong focus on reliability and integrity is intended to “keep the product in the pipe,” the best overarching strategy to protect the environment. Also, our programs in advanced materials and reliability-based design are intended to enable higher pressures in stronger pipe both of which will reduce the energy expended to transport an equivalent flow of hydrocarbons. We’ll continue to advance hot tap welding techniques that avoid pipeline blow-down and corresponding methane emissions.
More specifically, our focus in our compressor and pump station work is to pursue jointly both lower fuel usage and improve engine or pump efficiency while reducing emissions. This intersection of business drivers and environmental drivers defines much of what we do in the Compressor and Pump Station Technical Committee.
Meyer: As mentioned earlier, we believe CO2 is emerging as an issue for pipelines as other industries attack the problem of greenhouse gas emissions and deploy the means to capture and store CO2. Similar to the issue of transporting ethanol, we need to assure the right means to determine the safe operating parameters for CO2 to minimize and control any risks unique to the commodity. We expect to see projects on CO2 submitted for our 2009 ballot.
P&GJ: What is PRCI’s marketing strategy? Has it ever charged non-members for its services/products?
Tenley: We have two distinct areas in marketing – the dissemination of our research and growing our membership: we sell our published research reports – our “intellectual property” – via our Website. By grouping related reports into “packages” we enhance the value of the research to the user and also expand the dissemination of the work to the widest audience possible, a result that is one of our program goals.
We market our membership through direct one-on-one relationships of our members with their industry colleagues, as well as through the website, marketing brochures, and via key industry meetings and exhibitions such as the International Pipeline Conference, the Rio Conference, and the World Gas Conference.
The vast majority of the work that we’ve produced since 1952 has been published and is available beyond the membership for a reasonable fee. We also encourage our researchers and others to expose that research through technical conferences. One of our core values is that dissemination of our research is good for this industry because a fundamental premise, particularly with respect to integrity, is that if one pipeline company has a problem, they all have a problem. That’s a huge motivation to ensure that pipelines operate at the highest level of performance possible.
However, we’re not going to operate in a way that’s going to adversely affect a commercializing partner, or that denies our members the benefits of their investment, but with very minor exceptions, our member companies have supported every means of dissemination that we’ve used. We’ll be looking at how to broaden those in the future, given the new technologies and relationships that we’ve struck while keeping in mind that intellectual property is an issue.
P&GJ: Are you finding more synergies between the gas and liquids pipeline sectors?
Meyer: The Association of Oil Pipelines (AOPL) had an initiative in 2002 as members wanted to increase their research effort. At that time, PRCI seemed to be moving in the direction that would suit those needs. There were already three liquids members in PRCI and that initiative added eight new members of varying sizes.
What we found with existing and international members were tremendous overlaps in areas such as corrosion cracking, mechanical damage, right-of-way monitoring and design and construction. When there are a lot of common issues and one is dealing with issues like ground movement or seismic, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a gas or liquid pipeline. That alignment has evolved and now with the ability to direct money through voting your dollars, projects can gain broad support regardless of what commodity you’re shipping. As an example of a specific liquids initiative, the increased interest in ethanol led to the liquids members voting their dollars to request more research.
P&GJ: How will you be able to determine at year end if 2008 was a success?
Meyer: The measures that we would look for relate factually to the progress in our research programs. Ultimately we’ll measure PRCI’s mission success in terms of its ability to advance research in the areas that our members have put their dollars into. We’ll assess PRCI’s broader success in terms of continued growth both in membership and in partnerships as well as in general research funding that helps us advance the industry. We wouldn’t be where we are today without capability to evolve.
Tenley: Being a voluntary organization, the issue of free riders is a problem. Part of my job is to continue to make people aware of the value of PRCI and the difference that we can make in their organization. That our membership has grown is an important fact in today’s energy environment. Sustaining that growth is always a challenge. My message to the pipeline operating companies is that leadership is important in all aspects of this industry and certainly in research. The PRCI model offers a way for companies to be in a leadership role and to fully rationalize the cost of being a member.
George W. Tenley, Jr., worked as Chief Counsel for the Research & Special Programs Administration (RSPA), the U.S. Department of Transportation agency which supervised the Office of Pipeline Safety. In 1989, he was named to head the OPS and remained there until he retired from government in 1995. After working for Battelle Research and as an independent consultant, he assumed his current position at PRCI in 1998. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Art Meyer is Senior Vice President of Oil Sands Projects with Enbridge Pipelines. His pipeline background includes 30 years in operations, engineering and projects. He began his career with the Gulf Oil Co. He later worked for Trans Mountain Pipeline Co., now owned by Kinder Morgan, before joining Enbridge in 1989. He works in the firm’s Edmonton office and oversees major pipeline projects.