Pipeline integrity for Mexico’s critical infrastructureApril 21, 2022
Oscar Gonzalez, vice-president for Latin America at NDT Global, talks to The Energy Year about the condition of Mexico’s pipeline network, the issues of illegal tapping and fuel theft, and the technology the company offers to diagnose pipeline cracks, corrosion and other anomalies. NDT Global is a pipeline integrity company specialised in ultrasound and acoustic inspection technologies.
What is the state of Mexico’s pipeline network?
The industry expected to see a substantial growth of Mexico’s pipeline network over the last few years. The 2013 energy reform boosted private pipeline operators such as Sempra, TC Energy and Fermaca, which in turn led to the growth of our natural gas pipeline system. For example, this legislation also resulted in the construction of the Texas-Tuxpan and Los Ramones pipelines, among others.
Many players in the sector expected the same trajectory for gasoline and diesel pipelines, but this growth didn’t occur. The construction of lines importing fuel from the US into Mexico was not carried out, partly due to security issues such as illegal tapping. To an extent, the Mexican government failed to provide investors the assurance that they could construct pipelines with the necessary degree of safety. As a result, fuel has continued to be transported via maritime ports, trucks, and railways.
Today, Pemex is in the driver’s seat when it comes to fuel and natural gas distribution, but given the country doesn’t have enough product, it is forced to import it from the US. The Mexican administration has made a significant investment in the fuel sector via the construction of the Olmeca refinery, along with the revamping of the six state-owned refineries, which are underutilised. We have yet to see how this approach will enhance the midstream sector by transporting the product in-country more efficiently.
The current condition of the midstream sector in Mexico is quite poor. Pemex has an extensive pipeline infrastructure that requires an investment in inspection technologies for the integrity of its systems and the preservation of this ageing pipeline network.
How serious are the issues of illegal tapping and fuel theft in Mexico today?
Illegal tapping has been a major issue in Mexico, but the situation has improved over recent years. The current government has managed to clamp down on this type of activity by improving surveillance in the pipelines and rights-of-way.
While the illegal tapping of the pipelines remains a problem, a larger-scale issue is fuel loss. There is still plenty of work to be done as the poor maintenance of the network contributes to further ruptures and leaks. Large explosions caused by such neglect are common in Mexico today. Apart from this, we have witnessed increasing amounts of fuel theft at refineries, where tankers and trucks depart these facilities, but the product often does not reach its final destination.
A few years ago, we performed inspections for Pemex to detect illegal taps. We were successful, but the project came to a halt in 2015 due to a change in business priorities. The good news is that the current management is planning new projects to thwart the theft of products.
What technology does NDT Global offer to the market to detect pipeline cracks and analyse wall thickness?
Over the years we have established ourselves as a leading pipeline technology provider, especially in the area of ultrasonic inline inspection. In this sense, we are leaders worldwide, specialising in liquid pipelines. We have also developed ultrasound technology to accurately detect and size circumferential and axial cracks. Left undetected, these anomalies are dangerous to pipelines and are hard to diagnose with other technologies.
Many anomalies depend on the manufacturing quality of the steel and the condition of the line. For example, stress corrosion cracking is very common in pipelines that were manufactured during certain years, using certain steel, and can be further exacerbated by soil and operating conditions. This combination of elements, along with pressure over many years, affects the integrity of the pipe and can lead to cracks and corrosion. These problems normally take 5-10 years to notice, which is the suggested inspection time interval.
Corrosion and cracking have been common problems for years, but we now have more insight about the causes and solutions. In this regard, we offer several types of technologies to the market that detect pipeline cracks, such as Pulse Echo and Pitch and Catch UT methodologies. We are also developing a new ultrasonic technology which focuses on cracks in gas pipelines given the need for this in the Mexican market.
In 2020, we acquired Halfwave, a Norwegian company that developed proprietary acoustic resonance technology (ART), which allows high-precision measurements without the need for a liquid couplant. We are currently working with our R&D department in Germany and Norway to develop a new-generation technology for crack diagnosis in natural gas pipelines.
Tell us more about deploying ART for natural gas pipelines.
ART was specifically developed to inspect heavy-wall, high-pressure offshore pipelines. We are looking to introduce ART in Mexico. We have already run it in the US with very good results. Now, we’re working with a major Canadian gas pipeline operator in Mexico to possibly introduce this technology in a major cross-border offshore pipeline.In addition, we are developing a new system for crack diagnostics in gas pipelines that will address the current lack of a reliable solution in the industry.
We are in contact with all gas pipeline operators, and we will be offering this new technology to them. This high-end technology is well suited for application in strategic pipelines with cracks and crack-like defects. Gas pipelines need to have the best technology to avoid accidents that can be more drastic than typical fuel leakages. Gas is normally handled with more care and hence requires specialised technology.
How important is NDT Global’s data centre in Mexico?
Our data centre in Mexico City processes large volumes of information and data generated by our inspections worldwide. We have increased our staff in the centre given the demand for inspections globally. We receive terabytes upon terabytes of data coming from the ultrasonic and acoustic technology we apply. From here, our personnel analyse the data and determine the condition of pipelines – whether it’s corrosion, cracks, or any other issue. Although we have advanced AI and specialised software, human assessment is still crucial.
Over the years we have trained and invested in our own people in Mexico, so we don’t depend on our other centres to send the reports. From our Mexico centre we now analyse the data and provide detailed reports of inspections carried out in Latin America and other parts of the world, including most of the inspections done in Canada and the US.
What track record do you have with Pemex regarding the inspection of its network?
Over the last four years, we have been involved in the inspection of the construction of new offshore pipelines for Pemex, through companies such as Protexa, Arendal and Micoperi. Even if these constructions are new, plenty of problems can arise and there is a dire need for the baseline inspection that we have been carrying out for them. There are constant developments in shallow water so there is a need to ramp up production and to inspect the new pipelines built from the newly drilled wells to the different processing facilities.
In addition to this, we have done work with Pemex Logistics on crack inspection, given the stress corrosion (SCC) problems experienced in some of their pipelines. We do this type of work for them every four to five years. We have a good track record with both Pemex and Cenagas and we are also looking at providing our latest technologies to private operators.
What has the recent acquisition of NDT Global by Eddyfi/NDT meant for the company and what key initiatives is the organisation pushing on a global level?
In 2020, NDT Global was acquired by Eddyfi/NDT, which now has several business units under its wing: NDT Global; Eddyfi Technologies, which focuses on advanced non-destructive testing equipment; TSC Subsea, which applies offshore-specific NDT inspection; Dynamic Risk, which provides risk and integrity analysis; and Senceive, which offers intelligent wireless condition monitoring.
This step has been positive with larger growth demand – and our capabilities as an organisation are also larger, as we have much more reach and higher ambitions. In Mexico, for example, we have set a target of doubling our business by early next year.
One of the global initiatives we have as a company is not only to achieve “Beyond Zero Harm” but also to reduce our carbon emissions by 40% by the year 2025, and to hit net-zero emissions by 2030. All our teams across the world are committed to this goal as part of a holistic strategy to reduce CO2 from our operations side, and to reduce the amount of electricity we use in our offices. In addition to this, we are investing around 5% of our annual revenue in R&D, something essential to us as a company.