How GIS Is TRANSFORMING Pipeline Safety for Municipal Utilities

THE YEAR IS 2001. Collectively, we had just survived Y2K, the twin towers still stood in NYC, and pipeline regulations were starting to be a flashpoint in the industry. What few realized is that pipeline safety – and the definition of what “compliance” means to pipeline operators – would soon be transformed by a confluence of events.

Fast forward to today. That very same pipeline regulator landscape is now very, very different. The factors that affect pipeline safety have fundamentally changed. New factors (terrorism, natural disasters, population density) must be considered. New technologies (impacting inline inspection tools and pipeline locating techniques) have matured. High-profile incidents, near misses, and perceived high risk construction projects, have led news cycles and infiltrated water cooler conversations across the country. Pipeline safety regulations have evolved and with that evolution has come the need for pipeline operators to know more about their assets than ever before. More importantly, initiatives like Pipeline Safety Management Systems (PSMS) and revisions to existing reporting requirements are forcing those operators to revisit their data management approach more thoroughly.

As a professional who has spent a career in the proverbial pipeline sandbox, always hoping to build that better mousetrap in bringing geospatial technology to the forefront of pipeline data management, I have seen firsthand how pipeline operators large and small adapt to this ever-changing regulatory landscape. I know the investment required to succeed in this mission of improved asset management, and it is not insignificant. Each new technology, for all the value and efficiency and insight offered, requires a similarly voluminous serving of know-how to get “right”, and, as with any new technology in any market, comes at a premium cost. But all that being true, there has been, and remains to this day, a commitment to all of this within those companies; the cost is accepted, and effort fully understood.

Enter the municipal utility. Typically not a private company, municipal utilities are run by and for the citizens of the town they serve, and are paid for using taxes paid by those same citizens. Often the gas department in these towns is a part-time “hat” the Public Works Director wears. Perhaps, alternatively, it is an additional set of tasks picked up by the water department manager. For these towns there simply is not funding to absorb what would be the standard “buy-in cost” for the types of asset management solutions utilized by larger, private companies. Even if the money were somehow available, there is no staff to perform the work. In short, the commitment that helps keep the wheels of progress turning for many pipeline operating companies simply does not – and likely will not ever – exist for a municipal utility. This community had to reassess their approach to data management.

Whereas most pipeline operating companies generally develop their own GIS strategies based on a variety of factors (existing processes, resource availability, partners, technology, etc.), a solution that can work for municipal utilities must assume consistency among three foundational elements: data creation, data analysis, and reporting. In the simplest terms, this means City A and City B define a gas main, riser, valve, leak, etc. similarly. This specific condition is achievable by using an industry standard data model, which pre-defines the utility assets using a structure and naming convention that can readily be used for government reporting and follows industry guidance on how pipeline components are named and what attribution they carry.

Once this framework is established, the care and feeding of this solution approach is cut-and-dried. Because these operators now have a definition of what a feature “looks like” in terms of the GIS, it becomes very easy to extend those definitions into the actual workflow for the individuals executing the work on a day-to-day basis. An easy way to demonstrate this is to consider the process one may use to inspect and repair a leak. Historic practices would have a single report created when the leak was reported, a second report created when the leak was inspected, and then leak repair information entered into yet another paper form. After the work is complete, each of these paper forms would have to be consulted when entering the data into the GIS. Time is lost and the opportunity for data entry errors was created.

A modernized process would enable the creation of a single electronic form that one would use to initiate the inspection, and within that same form repairs can be identified in that one location, and upon completion, the GIS would automatically load that repair into the GIS database. Rather than spending time chasing down the data management, it becomes “baked in the cake” now as part of the processes.

Beyond the obvious and immediate value gained by having more accurate asset information available, there are far-reaching advantages to the onset of GIS usage at the city utility level. Using the GIS data for other applications (planning of community growth or identifying where the new high school football stadium could be built) offers countless opportunities to gain even more from the investment in improved data management. This collective “community” approach of municipal utility operators helping to keep costs manageable makes sense and allows those who serve these operators, service providers and software developers alike, to continue to refine their offerings to better support the goals and objectives of their clients while satisfying the requirements that uplift pipeline safety.

Most importantly, it helps deliver on the commitment we, as an industry, must all make to ensure safe and responsible operations for all pipeline companies, big and small, public or private, today and long into tomorrow.

Matthew Thomas is Managing Director for Pipeline Accident Prevention Service (PAPS) with 20-plus years of experience serving in various roles within the oil and gas pipeline industry. He is actively involved in Texas Gas Association, GITA, URISA, Louisiana Gas Association, Oklahoma Gas Association, American Gas Association and Southern Gas Association. Matthew can be reached at

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