Tuesday, July 14 – PIPELINERS PODCAST – EPISODE 136 – JEN HOLMSTADT sponsored by Energy Worldnet
This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features first-time guest Jen Holmstadt of WSB discussing the process of evaluating geotechnical hazards in pipelining.
In this episode, you will learn about complexity around geohazards in pipelining, geohazard assessment methods, and the importance of predictive methods when analyzing geotechnical hazards. You will also learn about the importance of understanding soil water content and how geohazards vary depending on a pipeline’s geographic location.
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 136, sponsored by Energy Worldnet, a worldwide service provider to the oil and gas industry, making the world a safer place by providing pipeline operators and contractors innovative solutions for operator qualification, safety training, content authoring, and guidance as pipelines operate in compliance with PHMSA, OSHA, and other regulatory requirements. To learn more about Energy Worldnet, visit energyworldnet.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 each episode. This week our winner is Robert Tindall with Glacier Oil & Gas. Congratulations, Robert, your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this signature prize pack, stick around until the end of the episode.
This week, Jen Holmstadt with WSB is going to talk to us about geotechnical hazards in pipelining. Jen, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Jen Holmstadt: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Russel: I wanted to start out and simply ask you to tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into pipelining.
Jen: Sure. I have been an environmental consultant for my whole career, about 14 years now. I got into pipelining because at the beginning of my career, I was doing contaminated site cleanup. The team that I was on got assigned to the Marshall, Michigan cleanup project.
My job was to find all of the crude that had submerged to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. At that point in time, Enbridge asked our team to come up with a geohazards program for them. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Russel: That’s interesting. You actually got brought into pipelining by an incident. Prior to that, you were just working in environmental. That’s interesting.
Jen: Yes. That’s the first time that I was exposed to it. I just never left.
Russel: Interesting. Before we got on the microphone I was teasing you a little bit. I was asking you about your degrees. You have a lot of degrees, a lot of alphabet after your name.
Basically, you’ve studied geography a lot. Is that a fair assessment of your educational career? Maybe you can tell me. How does a person with a master’s level education in geography end up in geohazard analysis in pipelining?
Jen: When you’re in grad school for geography, they do something to your personality, and then it draws you to weird things.
Jen: Actually my emphasis in geography was a sub-discipline called geomorphology, which is the study of science of landscape evolution and function. While we did study maps and things, my focus was more on physical properties and processes of the Earth’s surface.
Russel: If I want to try and put that in layman speak, that’s basically you have studied how the surface of the earth changes due to things like erosion, and freeze thaw, and watersheds, and all of that type of thing.
Jen: Absolutely. Basically, any process that takes place on the earth’s surface, how rivers work, why slopes fall down, why things are falling off of slopes, that’s all understood through geomorphology.
Russel: Geomorphology, I’m writing that down. That’s my word for the day.
Russel: For the listeners, just to give them a little context here, I have a background…My degree’s in civil engineering, and I did geotechnical work. There’s certainly some similarity. It’s understanding foundations basically. How do I get soil to carry weight? I’m sure there’s a lot of similarities. We’d probably have a lot to talk about if we got into the geekdom around all of this.
Jen: Probably. Probably much more than what would be interesting for everybody else.
Russel: I don’t know. We have a lot of geeks in our audience.
Russel: You might be surprised. Jen, I asked you to come on to talk about geohazards and what they are. I’m just going to start with a real simple question for you. What is a geohazard for a pipeliner?
Jen: A geohazard has a couple of different definitions. There’s just the definition of what it is, which is basically any process that takes place on earth’s surface that can negatively impact the integrity of their pipeline. Then, there’s a specific list of geohazards that they’re regulatorily required to consider as part of their integrity management program.
That varies depending on if it’s a liquids line, or a natural gas line, or a storage facility. In general what these include are earthquakes, any type of earth movement so landslides, a bucket of processes called subsidence, any loading, longitudinal, or lateral movement that would put force on the pipeline, floods, corrosive soils.
There’s just a whole list, and it just depends on what the pipeline is and what it’s carrying that dictates what you have to look at.
Russel: This reminds me of something I say often that everything is easy until you know enough about it. Right?
Jen: [laughs] Yeah.
Russel: To a novice, it would seem relatively simplistic that I take a pipe, and I weld it together, and I bury it in the ground, and that’s it. Really, no, that’s not it. One of the things that engineers know is that everything moves.
Russel: Movements apply stresses, and those stresses have to be managed and mitigated. Probably the thing that most operators would be familiar about is water crossings and movement associated with water crossings, particularly liquid operators because that’s a very high-risk kind of thing.
Jen: Absolutely, yes.
Russel: What are the kinds of methods that are used for doing geohazard assessment, determining what do you have to deal with?
Jen: There’s two main approaches to doing geohazard assessments. The first is a bucket of techniques that you would consider reactive. That’s not to say they’re not good ways. It’s just you’re looking at the earth after something’s already happened.
Then there’s proactive ways where you’re trying to do some predictive analysis to see if you can tell ahead of time whether or not you’re going to have a landslide, or a flood, or some process like that.
Reactive methods include things like satellite imagery, even just aerial photography, things like that. Proactive methods include artificial intelligence and GIS (geographic information system) processing techniques, and things like that.
Russel: To me it’s pretty straightforward to think about I take a set of photographs or I grab some satellite imagery, and then I do it again in a couple of weeks, and then again in a couple of weeks, and I compare it over time. That to me is straightforward in terms of determining if you’ve got things moving. Like a lot of other things, it can get quite complex I’m sure.
The thing that’s more interesting to me is how would I forecast that movement like what kind of things would I be looking for to understand where we’re headed and what I might need to do about that.
Jen: I absolutely agree with you that that’s the more interesting question. That’s the side, for example, that my team plays on. We really rely more on predictive methods because we think that it’s better to deal with these things upfront than deal with them after they’ve already happened.
Let’s just walk through one hazard on how you might predict it might happen. We can look at slope failures or landslides.
There’s 12 known types of landslides. There’s rock topples. There’s mudflows. There’s something called slope creep. All of these things have specific expressions on the surface and specific geologic factors that make them happen. It really depends on what combination of factors you have that are going to determine what type of slope failures you might have and when.
If you can find out where you’ve ever had, let’s say we’re just talking about the Bakken, if you can find out where you’ve ever had any slope failure in the past, you can statistically test where what factors, be it the aspect of the slope, how much vegetation is on it, how deep is the water table within that slope, you can test all of those different factors against each other and figure out what most likely caused the slope failures in the past.
Then you can use that information to predict where that might happen in the future. You can do that, something similar to that for any type of process.
Russel: At least in my experience, one of the primary things you have to look at, to understand, solve behavior, is moisture content.
Jen: Moisture content is very important.
Russel: Moisture content has a lot to do with how a soil behaves. If you think about, you used the example of the Bakken, so I’m just running this through my mind’s eye.
The steeper the slope, the more likely I am to have ground movement. The wetter the slope, the more likely I am to have ground movement. The more the ground can support the flow of water, so think of a gravelly soil versus a clay soil, the more that it’ll actually allow water to move, the more likely I am to have some kind of movement.
Jen: Yep, that’s right.
Russel: Am I tracking correctly?
Jen: You are tracking. Actually what’s interesting now is some of the newer techniques in GIS processing allows us to not necessarily rely on soil water content per se, but we can use other geologic factors, like a really important one is something called terrain curvature, which is basically the shape of the slope.
It tells us if the slope is convex and sticks out, or is concave and has a bowl shape to it. Slopes that are concave will gather more water than slopes that are convex. That’s a very powerful factor for determining whether or not you’re likely to have a landslide. We use factors like that more often than we use soil water content because it’s a factor that allows you to…
Russel: It’s easier to gather that information with today’s technology.
Jen: Absolutely. It’s easier, and it’s more reliable because soil water content can change based on a variety of things that we just cannot pick up using data sets that we have available to us, at least quickly and cheaply.
Russel: To me that’s interesting, and that makes sense. I’m sure once you start thinking about all the different kinds of soils and all of the different kinds of shapes that you would see in terrain, this gets really complex really fast.
Jen: It does. It’s one of the reasons why there’s some types of geohazards that don’t lend themselves very well to techniques like artificial intelligence. The reason for that is for an AI to learn, you have to have thousands and thousands of examples to teach it.
With something like slope failures, they look different depending on where you are in the country and what your underlying geologic factors are.
For example, here in Minnesota where I am and where my team is, we’re mapping all of the slope failure vulnerabilities for the Minnesota DOT along their trunk highways. Just within Minnesota, we have five distinct different geomorphologies with very distinct type of slope failures.
When you think about what that means for operators who have assets that stretch across multiple states, all of the different types of slope failures that they might be subject to, that makes something like AI very, very tough.
Russel: Yes. If you’re trying to predict a failure, you need lots, and lots, and lots of failures to be able to train the model, and we don’t have lots of failures. That’s one of the good things about pipelining, but it also makes applying artificial intelligence more challenging for sure.
Jen: Correct. Thankfully we have these other techniques, GIS-based techniques that allow you to get out that information without needing to train an AI. That’s the good news.
Russel: You’re absolutely right. To what degree is climate a factor in this like freeze thaw and those type of things?
Jen: It’s extremely important. Climate is one of the foundational aspects that will control things like, again, how much moisture do you have in your soils.
How much precipitation are you inputting into that system at any given time, or what kind of downpours might you be getting, which a downpour is basically a set amount of rain over a 24-hour period, and it varies depending on where you are. It’s very important.
Of course with freeze thaw, freeze thaw is really not an issue for operators in the south. It’s a very big issue for operators up here in the north or in places where you have alpine environments.
For example, in the Appalachians, a lot of their slope failures are actually caused by freeze thaw processes because the rocks at the top of the slopes freeze and thaw and freeze and thaw over, and over, and over again every single winter. That cracks them off the slope and cleaves them from the slope. Then they fall downhill and cause a slope failure.
Russel: Interesting. We talked a little bit about the rules. You mentioned there’s rules in 192 and 195. What is the nature of the existing rules in the pipeline safety code related to geohazard?
Jen: For 192, in Subpart O in the integrity management piece of the rule, there are requirements that operators look at outside force threats when they’re doing their risk assessment. That’s where the geohazards are listed. I believe it’s 192.917. They have a list of things that are required.
For gas pipelines, you need to look at any type of ground movement. You need to look at unstable slopes, water crossings, and water proximity, seismicity, subsidence, mining, and karst — karst is any type of landscape that’s underlined by carbonate rock like limestone or dolomite, it causes things like sinkholes — freeze thaw cycles, and excessive precipitation.
That’s what’s existing with the exception I threw seismicity in there, but that is the new requirement. Seismicity is something that was already covered under ground movement, but they’ve added the word seismicity to be more specific to make sure operators are looking at those.
Russel: What’s different between the gas guys and the liquid guys?
Jen: The gas guys have a way more explicit list of factors. For the liquids guys, they throw you to the wolves a little bit and tell you that you have to look at “geotechnical factors,” which is not a particularly helpful list of things.
Besides that, they also throw in climatic factors. They have subsidence again, and then you need to look at corrosivity of soils. When I’m working with an operator, I just advise you to do the list that’s in 192 because it’s more explicit.
Russel: It gives you a better idea of what you need to look to. I would assume, we’ve got the new rules around gas storage, and I would assume that there’s similar kind of things in the gas storage rules.
I’ve never thought about this, but knowing a little bit about storage, I would think that geohazards are a very material concern for these guys that are storing stuff in the ground, particularly around salt caverns.
Jen: Yes. Both 1171 and 1172, that’s the depleted aquifer storage and the salt cavern storage, those have been incorporated by reference into 192, with the exception that salt dome storage facilities have to adhere to the integrity management rules in the depleted aquifer language.
Basically what that means is under the outside force threats, which I believe is listed in the API rule 8.2, table 1, weather risks, ground movement, floods, subsidence, and ground water table changes, you also need to look at geohazards risk during your routine maintenance when you’re doing your preventative and mitigative measures.
Russel: I have to make a comment. You’re using the word subsidence, and that must be the northern pronunciation because down here, I learned it as subsidence.
Jen: I don’t know what to tell you. I’m from Minnesota. I know you can’t tell from my accent.
Russel: Those things to me are always interesting.
Russel: I just find that fascinating. I never even knew there was a different way to pronounce that word. [laughs] In 192 and 195, I understand that there’s some new rulemaking related to geohazards. I’m curious what that is. Is that already in the rule? Is it making its way through the process? Where is that?
Jen: For 195, it is in the rule. It came out October 2019 and it goes into effect July 1 of this year. To the best of my knowledge, at this point, PHMSA has not offered any waivers. I know they had said they weren’t going to enforce some of 192 quite as harshly during the COVID. They have not extended that to the liquids rule.
You do have to be ready to meet those dates, at least as of right now. What they did for 195 was they added in specifically seismic into a couple of different places, even though, again, you really should have been doing it already. It would have been covered underground movement. They’re just specifying and making sure you do it.
They also put in something called severe weather inspections. This is one of those things that sounds really easy until you start thinking about how you might implement this.
What the severe weather inspection says is that anytime you think that you’re going to have a hurricane, a flood, a landslide, an earthquake, or any event that is likely to cause those things, you have to go out to the location where you think it happened within 72 hours of the cessation of that event or at the safest possible time to access the site.
What that means is you have to know ahead of time where you’re likely to have landslides after a certain amount of rainfall. That’s what makes your geohazards programs really important, because you need to know that ahead of time. Otherwise, how will you know that you’re likely to have a landslide? It’s just comply with this rule. [laughs]
Russel: That requirement is, as I understand it, is being driven by what’s been going on in Appalachia, where they’ve had a number of landslides that resulted in pipeline incidents.
Jen: You’re right on that one.
Russel: They didn’t get caught for a period of time because they were, to some degree, masked by the weather.
Jen: That’s right.
Russel: It’s interesting because you made the point, how do you implement that. I don’t remember off the top of my head, but there is an episode I did about ground movement with a gentleman who had some midstream experience in Appalachia.
We talked about just the challenge, and for that matter, the risk of doing a foot patrol. I don’t know if you’ve been in Appalachia, but some of those slopes are quite steep.
Russel: It’s not the kind of thing that you want to ask somebody to walk that slope right after there’s been a lot of rainfall. They were very eagerly looking for other ways to do these patrols, and looking at things like drones, aircraft, satellite, so forth, to be able to do that assessment.
You’ve got this issue of, “Well, I got to do it right after the event,” not 72 hours, for all intents and purposes, right after the event.
Jen: What becomes important then is, again, to have your geohazards program to the point where you know you don’t have to go to every single slope that you have because you have a list of slopes that are likely to fail, let’s say, if you have a 25-year precipitation event, you have 100 slopes that you need to go look at, but it’s not 1,000 slopes.
Or, if you have 100-year rain event, you might have 75 slopes that you have to go look at but, again, it’s not 1,000 slopes. That will be really important. It will also provide you a really scientifically sound way to make your arguments to PHMSA that you are, in fact, compliant with the rule even though you haven’t went and looked at every single slope.
Russel: I guess there’s also an issue around, “Well, what was the weather and where did that precipitation actually fall?”
Jen: That’s going to be tough, because when you’re out in some of these rural areas, it’s not like there’s rain gauges everywhere.
Russel: That’s right.
Jen: For some of those areas, we’ve advised operators to think about things in terms of watersheds, because if there’s a rain gauge or some type of measurement, that’s available anywhere within the watershed, you can more or less assume that the same amount of water fell everywhere within that watershed.
At least that’s a scientifically supportable way to get at what amount of rain might have happened within a given spot if you don’t have the slopes instrumented, which nobody does, because why would you do that?
Russel: That’s right. Frankly, with where we’re headed with satellite technology and some of the other imaging approaches, and tying that into GIS, investing in actual measurement instrumentation is not very prudent considering where the technology is headed.
Jen: Correct. It’s just not a good use of resources.
Russel: Exactly. In most areas, there’s a fair amount of standards out there that people use to set up their programs. What are the standards in the area around geohazard?
Jen: There really aren’t a lot yet. I know that API has a standard that they use for managing erosion at water crossings. If I were advising an operator, I don’t think it’s robust enough to really give you the level of protection that you need to maintain your integrity, but that’s about it.
We don’t have a lot of other industry standards for geohazards yet. They’re coming as operators to focus on these and as PHMSA forces operators to spend more time thinking about this, but we don’t have them yet.
Russel: Why do you think we don’t have those standards?
Jen: These things are very complicated. The science isn’t even settled completely, for example, all the different ways landslides can happen. It’s certainly not settled when it comes to what all the impacts might be from tectonic events like earthquakes. Some of that is the science of how these things are monitored or conceived of, how they work is changing.
You can’t put together one set of standards and have it be valid for the entire country, because as we’ve already talked about, landscapes are so different. That would be unwieldy and ineffective.
Russel: The problem is a unique combination of complex and not fully understood.
Jen: Geographically, operators are concerned about very different things. Now in, for example, Louisiana in the Delta, your biggest concern is that the Delta is sinking and your pipelines are becoming exposed. That’s one of the processes that’s underneath the subsidence or the subsidence category that we were talking about earlier.
Jen: You care a lot more about that.
Russel: I like you say it both ways. That’s awesome.
Jen: You care a lot more about that than you care about freeze thaw.
Jen: You need to put your resources there. I’m putting this out there for my own protection. There’s nothing in the rules that say, “Just because you’re in southern Louisiana, you don’t have to consider freeze thaw,” because you do. It’s just a proportional part of your resources.
Russel: The point you’re making, and it’s really a good one, is that the risk is very different depending on where you’re located.
Russel: If I’m on the North Slope of Alaska, my risk there is completely different than if I’m in the Delta of Louisiana.
Russel: In fact, it almost couldn’t be more different.
Jen: That’s right.
Russel: Anybody who’s managing an integrity program, you’ve got to look at what your risks are and how you need to be utilizing your budget and your resources to mitigate those risks. This is where the idea of risk assessment and risk analysis starts to matter. I may not understand the science behind something, but I can generally get my head around the risk, at least at some level.
Jen: Your risk calculation doesn’t have to be complicated. We often use risk matrices. That’s not a computational measure of risk by any means, but it’s a quick and effective way to communicate with folks who aren’t up on the latest science for how floods happen. They’re a very effective tool for categorizing your risks provided that you have a very good understanding of what your consequences are.
Russel: Exactly. That’s the whole purpose of risk management support decision making. It’s not to do cool math.
Russel: [laughs] Although sometimes cool math is just fun for its own sake.
Jen: [laughs] My team would agree with you. I don’t want to see the cool math. [laughs]
Russel: I do. I’m weird that way. What do you think the future is? Where are we headed with all of this? What’s going on with technology? What things are people doing to manage these risks more effectively?
Jen: My team just attended an American Geophysical Union conference. It was in San Diego last winter. The whole purpose of the conference was for scientists to get together and talk about all the things that they’re doing to manage geospatial risks.
The themes that came out of that conference, I thought, were really interesting, where there’s a lot of research into how to effectively use AI, where it can be effectively used, how to use satellite or remotely sensed data the most effective way that it can and every hazard you cannot, because there’s not always a surface expression.
There’s a good place for satellite imagery, but it can’t get everywhere. How do you continue to write effective GIS programs that help you get at predictive pieces, and then how do you put together the risk program that balances how much effort you put into this with what’s your reward is at the end.
There’s a lot of work, study, and improvements being made on all of those things. We’re going to continue to see improvements in all of those as time goes on.
Russel: I would roughly characterize that as trying to understand the problem in a new way in the context of new technology.
Russel: Because even 20 years ago, the things we’re doing now with satellites, with GIS, and with cameras, and tying that data together, we didn’t even have the ability to do that 20 years ago.
Russel: We’ve come so far with the technology. If you think about drones, even 10 years ago, you saw a drone, that was a big deal. Now, they’re all over the place.
Russel: There’s a lot going in this whole domain where the fundamental problem is the same, but the approaches and the availability of technology to address those problems differently is shifting pretty quickly. We’re going to see different kinds of programs to manage this just because of what’s going on with technology.
Jen: You’re right. Especially for operators that have very diverse assets in different diverse landscapes, that’s a complex program to manage. We’ll need to be able to leverage as much technology as we possibly can to meet that challenge.
Russel: Exactly. I’m going to try and do something, Jen, that I often do, whereas I try to come up with two or three takeaways for the episode. I’m going to start by simply saying that the notion of geohazards is straightforward, but the reality of understanding the science and understanding the appropriate program can get very complex very fast. That’s my first takeaway.
I think my second takeaway is that there’s a lot going on with technology that’s probably going to change the way we’re doing this pretty radically in the next 5 to 10 years. Lastly, I would say that I have learned that geography is a whole lot more than map-making.
Jen: [laughs] That last bullet point, I like that one. That is true. [laughs] I think you’re right, yep.
Russel: I always think it’s interesting. Whenever I learn something that destroys an assumption even if it’s not necessarily an assumption that I intellectually created, it got created through my own personal life experience.
Whenever I get some new information that destroys that, I always find that interesting. This is one of those cases. I really appreciate you coming on the podcast and letting me have a little fun on this whole subject. I appreciate your insight, very informative.
Jen: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Jen Holmstadt. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our Pipeliners Podcast YETI Tumbler.
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Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know on the contact us page at pipelinerspodcast.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords
Categories: Pipeline Safety