This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features John Lynk and Sam Acheson discussing what exactly is a natural force threat, how to prepare for upcoming threats, and the 2022 reissue of the PHMSA advisory bulletin that came out in 2019.
In this episode, you will learn about how to manage geotechnical threats, utilize all data rather than just imagery to understand upcoming threats, pinpoint risk, reduce exposure, and understand which data is useful to you.
Managing External Force Threats: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- John Lynk is an Account Executive at Teren, Inc. Connect with John on LinkedIn.
- Sam Acheson is the Chief Operating Officer at Teren, Inc. Connect with Sam on LinkedIn.
- Teren transforms data into solutions that create a safer, more sustainable planet. By harnessing the plethora of remotely sensed data from orbit and airborne platforms, Teren delivers hyper-localized, asset-level insights faster than anyone else to help our clients manage climate risk and build resilience over time. Teren uniquely solves complex problems by applying modern data science techniques, geo-intelligence, and high-performance computing to deliver timely, actionable results. Teren works with asset owners, developers, engineering firms, and insurers to pinpoint risk, reduce exposure and improve climate resilience.
- Geotechnical Engineering is a specialization within civil engineering that involves investigating and understanding what is beneath the ground’s surface.
- Geotechnical Hazard (Geohazard) is any process that takes place on the earth’s surface that can negatively impact the integrity of a pipeline. (e.g. earthquakes, landslides, subsidence, etc.)
- The PRCI (Pipeline Research Council International) is the preeminent global collaborative research organization of, by, and for the energy pipeline industry.
- PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) ensures the safe transportation of energy and hazardous materials.
- Federal Register PHMSA Advisory Bulletin lays out explicit PHMSA guidance to operators on what constitutes natural force threats, different methods to identify and prioritize and monitor, and different methodologies to remediate them.
- CFR 192 and 195 provide regulatory guidance on the pipeline transport of natural gas and hazardous liquids, respectively.
- 192.917: How does an operator identify potential threats to pipeline integrity and use the threat identification in its integrity program?
- 195: PHMSA released a new final rule, “Pipeline Safety: Safety of Hazardous Liquid Pipelines,” in October 2019 that became effective on July 1, 2020. In the final rule, PHMSA strengthens the IM requirements to identify and respond to the increased pipeline risks resulting from operational changes, weather and associated geotechnical hazards, and increased use and age of a pipe.
- Natural Force Threats are acts of God that can threaten a pipeline’s integrity such as rain, flood, landslides, erosion, loss of cover, river bank failures, wildfires and associated debris flows, etc.
- GIS (Geographic Information System) is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present spatial or geographic data.
- LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges to the earth.
- Right-of-Way is a strip of land encompassing buried pipelines and other natural gas equipment allowing them to be permanently located on public and/or private land to provide natural gas service.
- ILI (In-line Inspection) is a method to assess the integrity and condition of a pipeline by determining the existence of corrosion, cracks, deformations, or other structural issues that could cause a leak.
Managing External Force Threats: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to “The Pipeliners Podcast,” Episode 247, sponsored by Burns & McDonnell, delivering pipeline projects with an integrated construction and design mindset, connecting all the elements, design, procurement, at the sequencing at the site.
Burns & McDonnell uses its vast knowledge, latest technology, and ownership commitment to safely deliver innovative, quality projects. Burns & McDonnell is designed to build and keep it all connected. Learn more at burnsmcd.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations. And now, your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time, and to show the appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener every episode. This week, our winner is Marcos Yepez with Atmos Energy. To learn how you can win this signature prize, stick around until the end of this episode.
This week, Sam Acheson and John Lynk with Teren join us to talk about managing external force threats. John, Sam, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
John Lynk: Thanks very much, Russel. Glad to be here.
Sam Acheson: Yeah, thank you.
Russel: I just have to tell the audience that John’s been sitting here, because we actually have a camera that we’re looking at. We don’t share the audio when we drop the podcast, but John’s been showing off this really cool YETI that he has.
It’s got a big, old fancy Pipeliners Podcast logo right smack dab on the front of it, and he’s making sure it’s facing the camera. Well done there, John, I appreciate it.
John: Thanks, Russel. Thanks for the mug.
Russel: [laughs] Look, let’s ask you guys to introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you landed at Teren. John, why don’t you go first?
John: My name is John Lynk. I have been at Teren for just about a year now. I was drawn to pipeline geohazard integrity management back in 2016. I was doing some geotechnical engineering, and somebody told me about the field.
They said, “This is a very important part of geotechnical engineering, and you should learn a little bit more about the pipeline and maybe take a look at it.” I joined PRCI on that guidance. While at PRCI, I met Sam, and we got to talking about pipeline geohazards.
Then last year, Sam was looking for somebody, and we just got to talking and just naturally fell into place.
Russel: Awesome. I actually met John at PRCI probably early 2019, maybe late 2018. He gave me a tour of those facilities, just so the listeners know about that. It’s a small world we live in sometimes.
Russel: Sam, same question. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you landed at Teren.
Sam: That’s great. First off, Russel, appreciate being on again. Sam Acheson here. I’d known the founder of Teren in our previous company. We used to be called SolSpec. We transformed, rebranded into Teren last year. I’d known the founder of SolSpec and Teren, Toby Kraft, for many years.
We both live and work and recreate in awesome Colorado, and we both work in the oil and gas and pipeline industries. Our paths had crossed many times. I started hearing about this thing Toby was doing starting in about 2017.
Really, through some pretty fortuitous happenstance saw an alignment of a transition that SolSpec at the time, now Teren, was making that really fit in with a lot of passions that I have, really focused on pipeline integrity and using data in a positive and proactive manner.
Russel: So Sam is a previous guest from a previous company.
Sam: Yeah, I am.
Russel: If you guys want to know more about Sam and his misspent history, you can just look that up in a previous podcast episode.
Sam: Yeah, and still great friends with that organization, too.
Russel: It’s Friday. I should let the listeners know. As we’re recording this, it’s Friday afternoon, and we’re getting a little giddy.
I asked you guys to come on to talk about the natural force threat and the PHMSA advisory bulletin that came out in 2019 and was reissued in 2022. Maybe you could start by just telling us a little bit about that advisory bulletin and what’s in it.
John: That advisory bulletin, I’m holding a copy in front of me, Federal Register, volume 84, number 85, for people that want to look it up, page 18919.
Russel: We’ll link all that up in the show notes for the listeners.
John: What it really does is lay out pretty explicit PHMSA guidance to operators on what constitutes natural force threats, different methods to identify and prioritize them and monitor them, and then different methodologies to remediate them.
Whereas in 49 CFR 192 and 195, earth movement and natural force threats are brought up, there’s not a tremendous amount of detail in how to really interface with them. This advisory bulletin really gives quite a lot of detail on how to interface with them.
In some ways, it gives a lot of guidance without being prescriptive, which is good, but it also brings up quite a few examples, so examples of why this is necessary, of past incidents. Then the reissue in 2022 brought up more incidents in more geographic locations and varied terrains and different products as well.
Russel: It might be helpful, John, if you listed some of – for the pipeliners that maybe aren’t familiar with this topic area – the things that would fall under the category of natural force threat.
John: Sure. Natural force threats are things that nature can do to a pipeline to threaten its integrity. Common examples are landslides, erosion, loss of cover, river bank failures, wildfires and associated debris flows, so things like that.
A common thing that runs between a lot of them – I was thinking about this before our talk today – is oftentimes, water is a large culprit. I’ll point out, too, water also is critical for external corrosion, but external corrosion is one natural force thing that’s usually bracketed out, is not really included.
Russel: I guess one way to frame this is acts of God. It’s rain, flood, fire, basically, as the common element that’s causing issues with the pipeline.
John: Russel, I’m glad that you brought that up, because prior to 2019 and before…A lot of natural force threats – we have the Weather Channel – a lot of these things are predictable, repeatable. You can gather data on it. You can make forward looking predictions based on that data, look at leading edge things.
Historically, a lot of these things have been treated as an act of God, force majeure. Oh, we did a good job designing it, and that was our goal. Then we put it there, well, and then this happened.
Russel: Then we had a thousand-year flood. What am I going to do?
John: Right. In many ways, thinking about the field of geohazards in general, I think about it as a chicken and egg thing, between the pain and the technical problem and the technology to solve it. Prior to 2016, I hadn’t heard of pipeline geohazards.
It wasn’t probably widely discussed outside of the pipeline industry. I think it was more localized. There are areas that have always had this high pain, like Alberta, Rocky Mountains, California, where it’s been a very high pain.
Russel: I think where you’re going with that conversation, John, is interesting. I think this natural force thing has historically been thought of as a regional-specific problem. I’ve got earthquakes in California, and I’ve got steep slopes in the Rocky Mountains, and I’ve got lots and lots of rivers in the Gulf Coast of Texas.
It’s been like that. We’ve tended to think of all those things as different kinds of threats or different kinds of risks. Really, what you’re driving at, I think, is that there’s a mechanism or a way to look at that more holistically and look at, well, there’s a threat there. What’s the mitigation for that threat?
John: Yeah, absolutely.
Russel: That part of it is more scientific. I’ll give you my theory about why this is getting more airplay or more interest. I think it’s a combination of two things. I’d be very curious to get your take on this. I think, one, there’ve been a number of incidents – not recently, but there was a period of time in Appalachia – where all these new gas pipelines and NGL pipelines had been built where we started having landslide problems.
There were a number of them, not like one or two, but quite a few. That caused it to get a lot of attention. That’s one aspect. Then the other aspect is just where we’ve gotten to with satellites, imagery, and GIS, and what we can do there.
The tools and the technologies have come a long way, as has the, I don’t want to say the significance, but the number of issues that have been getting uncovered. That’s why I think it’s getting more attention. Then when you look at Appalachia, you say, “I’m not just going to look at Appalachia. I need to look at this holistically.” What do you think?
Sam: If I can step in here really quickly, Russel, I mentioned the fortuitous series of events that landed me at Teren. Had the opportunity to really sit down and understand the origins of the company, and our former parent company was a land reclamation business.
He was an environmental scientist in this business, and he found himself in Appalachia, went to Best Buy, bought a DJI Phantom 4 drone, had a high-powered laptop with GIS tools on it, and started mapping out these landslides and applying what we geo nerds call these mechanistic models to try to predict, or I shouldn’t say predict, but to try to find insight into where maybe other areas, and start to put a priority in place for these things.
Through the course of time, it grew out of drone space into satellite and aerial acquisition, moved beyond imagery. Started embracing this technology called LIDAR, which we can get into as well.
You’re absolutely right. It’s the tools, the understanding, the computing power that’s enabling us to get our minds around this from a technology standpoint is definitely a driver for the growth in the industry.
I also think, as we have an onshore boom like we did for the better part of a decade, we are going to be experiencing new threats, new risks, and definitely responses from those. Using technology to get ahead of that is also going to be important for the industry.
Russel: Absolutely. Sam, I want to reel you back a little bit, because you made a comment about how your founder started all this. How did he happen to be in Appalachia and get the idea that, “I’m going to go buy a drone, capture some information, and feed it to my laptop?”
I want to hear more about that. That, to me, that’s the height of geekdom right there.
Sam: It is. Honestly, that story is step one in sucking me into this organization. I wish he was here to tell the story, because he can add his anecdotal tidbits that just make it an even better story. He was working for this large land reclamation business. They started doing a lot of work in Appalachia. One of the project managers called him, and as he said it, he was leaving the airport, driving home on a Friday night. One of the project managers called him and was like, “You need to be out here right now. You need to see what this is.”
He made a call to his wife and asked for forgiveness, and not permission. Drove back to the airport, bought a ticket, and flew out to Appalachia. I think that first trip, he was there for six weeks straight, and walked onto a right-of-way, saw what was happening. Like I mentioned, his background was in environmental science and really using GIS to augment environmental science. Immediately, he went back to education, in fact, reached out to one of his former professors at university who is now our head of data science inside of the organization.
Another part of that fabric that wove together, but the two of them together came up with extracting these 3D models from drones. He tells this hilarious story that, at the time, drones were going to be the revolution. We were going to get our pizzas delivered by drones, and everything was going to be like that.
He was going to revolutionize geospatial and data science using drones. Realized pretty quickly that beyond visual line of sight was going to be a problem going and mapping these large pipeline infrastructures. We keyed in on, as an organization, a couple of those incidents that you mentioned early on, Russel.
We were in Appalachia during some of those things. We had two foundational clients that were working with us – still are – and they immediately said, “Go get our entire systems.” That’s when it transitioned from drones into aerial imagery, realized the limitations of aerial imagery when it comes to vegetation and all of the different acquisition parameters.
Russel: I find it fascinating, because of where an interest meets an opportunity, and where experience combined with interest meets an opportunity. For those that don’t know what environmental science is, a lot of environmental science is understanding the land and understanding how water moves in the land.
What you’re trying to do is you’re trying to make sure that any pollutants don’t get outside of where they’re supposed to be contained. There’s a lot of analysis. To me, there’s a lot of corollaries between looking at a pipeline right-of-way and land movement and doing an environmental science analysis.
There’s a lot of corollaries. Important differences, but a lot of corollaries.
Sam: There is.
Russel: That whole thing’s fascinating to me.
Sam: The other thing, I want to inject here really quickly in that every now and then, we come across these unique and creative minds. Like you said, where passion and interest meets opportunity. When I joined the company, the organization had transitioned. It had started embracing this LIDAR technology, and it found some challenges in processing and getting the data back in a timely manner.
One of the things that really impressed me was Toby went out and started finding people from machine learning, the high-performance computing, hired some people out of the Google sphere, and had this passion of cracking this nut on being able to process this data and at speed and at scale. That right there was the trigger that brought me into the organization.
Russel: Tell us just a little bit about what you guys do at Teren, so that people understand the context of the conversation we’re having here.
John: Broadly, the way I like to think about what we do for pipeline operators – and we’re in a couple different verticals, too, but pipeline, what we really do – what I think about is we take nature, a nebulous threat, various threats, we identify where the threats are, we prioritize them, and we deliver a call sheet.
Russel, I know you’re very familiar with inline inspection from past podcasts and industry experience. What I really think about Teren does…
Russel: I’ve done a lot of podcasts on ILI, but I’m certainly no expert. Go ahead. [laughs]
John: I think we’re in the same boat. I’ve just absorbed a lot from PRCI. What I think about what Teren does is like an above line inspection. It’s very similar. We send a physical sensor above the right-of-way, as opposed to in the pipeline.
From that, we find anomalies in the right-of-way, near the right-of-way. Then we process it, and we deliver a prioritized call sheet. An operator can look at their right-of-way, and whatever various threats they’re looking at – if it’s river crossings, erosion, landslides – see where the threats are and then see where they call on a priority list.
Then we have a number of analytics, so there is regional variability, as we discussed. There’s different threats in different areas. What we see with West Texas is going to be different from what we see in Louisiana, and is going to be different from what we see in Appalachia.
We have analytics for the different threats tuned to those, but somebody greats a spreadsheet at the end they can pull out of our viewer and say, “OK, so these 15 landslides say, I need to fix these ones right now. These ones, these next seven, I need to install a piezometer and keep an eye on. The rest of them, I need to check next year and see how they go.”
It basically turns something very nebulous into something very actionable, where you can create a plan and a budget. You find the geohazards instead of the geohazards finding you.
Sam: John, the only thing that I would add to that very good explanation is we also, through all of the analytical packages we deliver, we have the ability to extract change through time. As you do that in subsequent years, we can start helping you understand that monitoring and tracking and managing that growth through time, much like going back to the ILI analogy.
Russel: I think that’s really interesting. I don’t think historically we’ve thought about visual inspection or image capture. I’ve done a number of podcasts on this. I know that image capture and image analysis goes way beyond what you can do with the human eye.
That whole process has been, I take a snapshot, I see where I’m at, and I move on. We never really thought about capturing that data and looking at it over time to see change. That’s very common in ILI, but it’s not really common with geohazards.
John: Totally correct. Two things that you touched upon there that I’d like to cover with image capture. As we were discussing change detection, yeah, some of the analytics hinge upon that. We have been in talks with an operator recently about riverbank migration.
In the Gulf Coast, we have meandering streams, and they naturally move towards the outer bank. Just with time, just a physics thing, naturally, the bows get wider and wider.
Being able to quantify that and show, OK, let’s say you have 15 feet of cover, and your action threshold is 10 feet. Being able to look at change through time and then look at stream gauge data, go to a USGS stream gauge data, and plot how much bank loss you’ve had against how many high flow events you’ve had.
That is a very powerful tool. Then you’re not reactive. You can build a leading-edge analytic, as opposed to a reactive response.
Russel: That all makes sense to me, and I can track with that conceptually. I guess one of the questions that comes up for me is what about looking at future weather events and the impact that has? Are you doing any of that type of thing? Is that a possibility, or what about that?
John: With that one example, we are trying to move towards that, where we have created a site-specific, forward-looking analytic. We’re working on existing projects now. A lot of this stuff is extremely site specific, so as we gather more data on a site, we can progressively say, “Here’s what we saw in the past two years, the past four years. Here’s what we should expect.”
Sam: Understanding the impact that weather has on so many of these external force threats like we’ve talked about. Teren is doing a lot with weather monitoring, tying those into our analytics, tying those into what we call terrain products.
We can also try to look into the future. Like John said, working to assess future state, but also help monitor and alert in the now as well.
John: If you talk about just the nature of Appalachia, you’ve got a lot of fairly steep slopes going 2,000, 3,000 feet in elevation change. Those right-of-ways, because of those steep slopes and the nature of the ground, is, if you get a light rainfall, probably not a big deal, but if I get a deluge, that’s a big deal.
Being able to take weather data, both in terms of future weather and weather we’ve just had, run it back through your model, and say, “Here’s my priorities for the things you need to go look at first,” that has a huge amount of value.
Sam: It does. You mentioned Appalachia and the steep slopes. Two other things that I can just think of as weather impacting in the Southwest, we have these things, we call them, we’re in monsoon season right now in Colorado.
We’ll have relatively infrequent, though high precipitation, events. Because we have a lot of sandy, loamy type soils, we’ll get a lot of ground movement, land movement from these large weather storms. You’ll lose cover over the top of your pipes.
In the Midwest, you could have a rainstorm that happens hundreds of miles upstream from your assets, but because you have those stream volumes increasing as they get closer to where, if you have a river crossing, or you’re running adjacent to a river, even if that event isn’t on your assets, it could expose risk.
You’re absolutely right. The intersection between weather events, understanding the topography, understanding the interdependencies, and then using that to try to build models that, as we say internally, we want to pinpoint risk, we want to reduce your exposure, and then we want to improve resilience through these more foresight analytical products.
Russel: I think there’s a lot bound up in that whole conversation.
Sam: It’s another episode.
Russel: I guess where I want to go next in this is how do you, in practice, how do you pull this all together? I would assume that there’s a whole process around image capture and data capture. I would assume that y’all are getting that stuff into the cloud someplace, doing your analysis.
Then really, what you’re sharing with the operators is that which they need to have actionable data.
Sam: Yep. Another joke we say inside is, “We deliver red pixels.” Don’t worry about all of the volumes of data that go into this. Just know this is where you’ve got to focus.
Russel: You deliver red pixels, [laughs] OK.
Sam: Our team is consisting of, we have some people that have developed this, what we call a proprietary, high-performance computing engine that sits on top of a cloud-enabled, time-aware geospatial library. Then we – in total geek terms, and apologize to everyone – then we have a processing pipeline that sits on top of that.
That pipeline can either grab data that we have acquired through imagery, through LIDAR acquisition. Then I know everybody is hearing about all of the various satellites that are going up. We can even consume satellite data into this.
We put this data into this time-aware, spatially aware catalog, and then we can run these analytics on top of it that further enrich that data. As we mentioned earlier, we have environmental scientists that work on the team that understand that physical world and how to model that in a digital space.
Then we have folks like John and others that are more in the subject matter expertise realm and the domain specific realm that can then go talk with our clients and the industries, the verticals we serve, and really help integrate that into their own processes.
Russel: You just said a mouthful there. For a geek like me, I want to go to your datacenter and sit next to the geeks that are managing all this data, look at all the algorithms they’re running, and play with the math. I could get lost. I’m just that kind of nerd. I could get completely lost in that.
Sam: Well, we love it. We do.
Russel: Look, I want to try and summarize this whole conversation with some key takeaways. I’m going to give this a crack, and then you guys can let me know how good I did. I’m going to try to say, OK, here’s the three takeaways about this conversation that all pipeliners should know.
First is, in terms of managing geotechnical threats, the way to think about it is above ground inspection. Similar to what you do with inline, but now thinking about the above line as a mechanism, and inferring all the processes and the data analysis that you do for inline, but with above ground data. That’s the first takeaway.
The second takeaway is that it’s not just the imagery. It’s other things like pipeline alignment, river hydrology, weather, and where did I have a forest fire versus where might I have a forest fire, and those kinds of things. In other words, it’s not just the imagery, it’s the entirety of the data that I would need to analyze the problem.
Then lastly, the trick with all this is to focus on red pixels, to use Sam’s term. In other words. There’s a whole lot of data being moved around that’s interesting, but what you really care about is where you need to go look, because you may have a problem. How well did I do?
Sam: I think you did well. If I could add one thing there. Actually, I’m going to add two things there. Thing number one is, we mentioned it before, that intersection of where computing is getting powerful enough that we can throw these models at it. Let’s not discount the technology side of it.
Then the second part of it is the maturity of the subject matter expertise that we get to work with every day, just that human component, that ability to…You’ve seen this data enough that you can start to infer other tangential benefits from it.
Russel: That whole big, very, very large dataset manipulation, and the application of various kinds of analytics and mathematics to those very big datasets, that gets very highly specialized very quick, because it’s all about knowing the nature of this particular dataset and those algorithms that are going to be meaningful applied to it.
That’s a good, “Oh, and by the way.” [laughs] John, you got anything you want to add before we wrap up here?
John: No. Thank you for having us on. It’s been a pleasure. I guess one thing, just as Sam said. The people that we work with, we are privileged to work with a great team. If you ever need a podcast, Russel, they could go into great detail on very many interesting things. That’s all I’ll add.
Russel: I certainly think I’d be interested in getting your founder out and talking to him about the whole creation story of this. I love capturing that kind of stuff. I think that’s fascinating. That might be fun to do.
Gentlemen, thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it, and enjoy the rest of your Friday.
John: All right.
Sam: You as well, Russel.
John: You, too, Russel. Thanks.
Sam: Thank you much.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Sam and John. Just a reminder before you go. You should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit PipelinePodcastNetwork.com/Win and enter yourself in the drawing.
Russel: If you’d like to support this podcast, please leave us a review. You can do that wherever you happen to listen, and you can find instructions at PipelinePodcastNetwork.com. If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know, either on the Contact Us page at PipelinePodcastNetwork.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords