Pipeline Risk Assessment—Myth Busting Part 1

In the first installment of this column, we introduced the concept of pipeline risk assessment Essential Elements.  This is a list of ingredients that arguably must be included in any pipeline risk assessment.  In this installment, let’s examine

“I can’t do good RA because I don’t have enough data.”

There are at least two aspects to this issue, both of which need some myth-busting.  The first is related to the myth that the only way to predict the future is to have hard counts of how often something happened in the past.  The second is related to an idea that certain types of RA require more knowledge of your system than other RA types.

Classical QRA—at least how its practiced by many—relies heavily on historical failure frequencies.  I often hear something like “we can’t do QRA because we don’t have data.”  I think what they mean is that they believe that databases full of incident frequencies—how often each pipeline component has failed by each failure mechanism—are needed before they can produce the QRA type risk estimates. That’s simply not correct.  While such data is helpful, it is by no means essential to RA.

There is no argument that knowledge of your system is important.  Without it, accuracy is compromised.  Loss of accuracy leads to inefficient decision-making.  So, the second misconception can be readily busted by simple logic.  Which is better, weak data with a weak model or weak data with a strong model?  Obviously, the latter.  The strong model can’t completely overcome the limitations of ‘weak data’, but why compound the absence of data with a flawed modeling approach? In reality, any RA approach suffers when knowledge is low and is improved by better information.

In fairness, we can look at how the perception of ‘data hungry modeling’ came to be.  Recall from earlier columns how the original indexing RA’s were designed for high-level screening application.  They employed many short-cuts and did not seek accurate RA but only prioritization of risk issues.  They did not attempt full use of data-intensive inspections (ie, ILI, CIS) nor location-specific changes in many risk factors.  They made many generalizations using only very readily available information.  Nonetheless, we called these RA, even though they accomplished only a fraction of what a modern RA needs to accomplish.  So, these RA approaches seemed to ‘need’ only general data in contrast with how typical QRA’s were being conducted in other industries.  In the minds of many, there was then a coupling of scoring-RA = low data needs and QRA = high data needs.

Other Myth-Busting

From WKM interview

If they do the same thing as QRA, why not just use classical QRA?

Several reasons:  classic QRA is expensive and awkward to apply to a long, linear asset—can you imagine developing and maintaining event trees/fault trees along every foot of every pipeline?  Classical QRA—at least how its practiced by many—relies heavily on historical failure frequencies.  I often hear something like “we can’t do QRA because we don’t have data.”  I think what they mean is that they believe that databases full of incident frequencies—how often each pipeline component has failed by each failure mechanism—are needed before they can produce the QRA type risk estimates. That’s simply not correct.  While such data is helpful, it is by no means essential to RA.

But if I need to estimate(‘quantify)’how often a pipeline segment will fail from a certain threat, don’t I need to have numbers telling me how often similar pipelines have failed in the past from that threat?

No, it’s not essential.  It’s helpful to have such numbers, but not essential.  Note that the historical numbers are often not very relevant to the future—how often do conditions and reactions to previous incidents remain so static that history can accurately predict the future?  Sometimes, perhaps, but caution is warranted.  With or without historical comparable data, the best way to predict future events is to understand and properly model the mechanisms that lead to the events.

Why do we need QRA-type results?  Why not just use scores?

Absolute estimates of risk—a measure of some consequence over time and space, like ‘failures per mile-year’—are the most meaningful measures of risk we can create.  Anything less is a compromise.  Compromises lead to inaccuracies; inaccuracies lead to diminished decision-making, leading to mis-allocation of resources; leading to more risk than is necessary.  Good risk estimates are gold.  If you can get the most meaningful numbers at the same cost as compromise measures, why would you settle for less?

Are you advocating exclusively a quantitative or probabilistic RA?

Terminology has been getting in the way of understanding in the field of RA.  Terms like quantitative, semi-quantitative, qualitative, probabilistic, etc. mean different things to different people.  I do believe that for true understanding of risk and for the vast majority of regulatory, legal, and technical uses of pipeline risk assessments, risk estimates in the form of consequence per length per time are essential.  Anything less is an unnecessary compromise.

What about the concern that a more robust methodology suffers more from lack of any data?  (i.e.,” If I don’t have much info on the pipeline, I may as well use asimple ranking approach”.)

In the absence of recorded information, a robust RA methodology forces SME’s to make careful and informed estimates based on their experience and judgment.  From these estimates reasonable risk estimates emerge, pending the acquisition of better data.  Therefore, I would respond that lack of information should drive you towards a more robust methodology.  Using a lesser RA approach with a small  amount of data just compounds the inaccuracies and does not improve understanding of risk.

It sounds like you have methods that very accurately predict failure potential.  True?

Unfortunately, no.  While the new modeling approaches are powerful and the best we’ve ever had, there is still huge uncertainty.  We are unable to accurately predict failures on specific pipe segments except in extreme cases.  With good underlying data, we can do a decent job of predicting the behavior of numerous pipe segments over longer periods of time.  That is of significant benefit when determining risk management strategies.

Nonetheless, it sounds like you’re saying there are now pipeline RA approaches that are both better and cheaper than past practice . . . ?

True.  RA that follows the our Essential Elements* (EE) guidelines avoids the pitfalls that befall many current practices.  Yet, we can still apply all of the data that was collected for the previous approaches.  Pitfall avoidance and re-use of data makes the approach more efficient than many other practices.  Plus, the recommended approaches now generate the most meaningful measurements of risk that we know of.

Sounds too good to be true.  What’s the catch?

One catch is that we have to overcome our resistance to the kinds of risk estimate values that are needed.  When faced with a number such as 1.2E-4 failure/mile-year, many have an immediate negative reaction, far beyond a healthy skepticism.  Perhaps it is the scientific notation, or the probabilistic implication, or the ‘illusion of knowledge’, or some other aspect that evokes such reactions.  I find that such biases disappear very quickly, once an audience sees the utility of the numbers and makes the connection — ‘Hey, that’s actually a close estimate to what the real-world risk is.’

Pipeline Risk Assessment—Risk Profiling

In earlier installments of this column, we introduced the concept of pipeline risk assessment Essential Elements (EE’s).  That guideline is a list of ingredients that must be included in any pipeline risk assessment before that assessment can be considered complete.  Following these guidelines helps to ensure a technically sound risk assessment that should satisfy all stakeholders, including regulators, and provide useful decision-making support to owner/operators.  The EE risk assessment is a Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA).  There are many reasons why today’s pipeline risk assessment must be quantitative—driven by numbers.

The pipeline EE risk assessment differs in important ways from the QRA typically seen in the nuclear, chemical, and aerospace industries.  In this installment, let’s note some key differences and examine the essential element dealing with one of those differences—the need for a risk profile.


The idea of a risk profile—changes in risk over ‘space’—is what sets pipeline risk assessment apart from many other QRA applications.  Traditional QRA is normally applied to facilities that do not occupy a constantly changing ‘space’.  Even air- and spacecraft QRA’s have limited use of changing environmental conditions—they tend to focus on the extreme conditions that govern design requirements.

There are many similarities in QRA approaches, but some key differences when applied to a pipeline.  Pipeline QRA’s are unique from others in several key respects:

  1. Efficient and independent examination of three distinct PoF ingredients: exposure, mitigation, resistance
  2. Methodology that accommodates long, linear assets with constantly changing environmental and loading conditions
  3. Substantially reduced reliance on historical incident rates.

The creation of a risk profile is a key differentiating aspect.  A profile acknowledges the unique aspects of long, linear assets, recognizing that there are many ‘individual’ pipe segments among the ‘population’ of segments that make up a pipeline.  As with any treatment of populations vs individuals, behavior is much more accurately predicted for the former.

Traditional QRA relies heavily on historical incident rates.  When applied to pipelines, this means that a pipeline—a population of pipe segments in varying environments—is modeled to behave as point estimates of populations of other, supposedly comparable pipelines—also collections of individual segments.  As the foundation for a risk assessment on a subject pipeline, this is potentially very inaccurate.  Let’s examine all of the implied assumptions embedded in this approach:

  1. Comparison population (collections of pipe segments from similar pipelines) is fairly represented by a single value—ignoring extremes is appropriate; ie, the fact that some segments of pipelines may carry much less or much more risk, is not germain.
  2. Subject pipeline, considered as a whole, is fairly represented by the comparison population
  3. All parts of subject pipeline behave similarly—the sum of the parts equals a value represented by the comparison


The full RA solution to any variation in any risk variable is to ‘dynamically segment’ on that variation.  This means that a new segment should be created for any feature or length of pipe that has different characteristics from its neighbors.  Therefore, each pipe joint, fitting, etc should be an independent segment, reflecting its differing crack potential, corrosion potential, ability to resist external force, etc.  This will generate many segments.  A potential criticism to this high-resolution approach is that ‘management of such a high count of segments is problematic’.  The response is direct and intuitive—these segments are currently already being ‘managed’ in the real world.  Each joint really does have failure issues distinct from the adjacent pipe and must be managed accordingly.  Every fitting really does introduce new failure issues.  The risk assessment should acknowledge this reality.

In RM practice, the high segment count is not burdensome.  Proper aggregation allows a ‘summary’ risk value for any stretch of pipe, regardless of the number of changes in risk properties along that stretch.  Once a pipe section—a collection of segments—becomes a candidate for RM, the initial drill-down quickly reveals if the risk issue is due to a number of problematic joints, fittings, appurtenances, etc.  If so, RM plans are made accordingly.

Information limitations may make the full approach impractical for initial applications of RA in DIMP.  A compromise approach is taken that estimates the occurrences of joints, fittings, and other features.  For instance, a length of cast iron main pipe might be assumed to have a joint every 20 ft and fittings every 40 ft.


This idea of bias-control might at first appear as a rather obscure, highly technical issue only.  However, it is actually an essential element and critical to proper risk assessment. It is essential to an understanding of the risk assessment and the subsequent use of the risk estimates.  If not already defined, one of the first questions to ask when viewing a risk assessment is:  ‘what is the level of conservatism in this assessment?’.


Model developers must choose the level of rigor to include in all aspects of a risk assessment.  That level of rigor will often vary, even within the same overall model, to accommodate data availability and perceived importance of that portion of risk.

While additional modeling efforts can almost always be utilized, the additional effort should add a commensurate amount of benefits (ie, accuracy and/or utility) to justify that effort.  This cost/benefit is difficult to establish.  For example, a normally exotic failure mechanism will generally warrant little attention for the vast majority of most pipeline systems.  However, for the rare pipeline segment that may suffer from this exotic failure mechanism, a detailed assessment, involving all possible inputs and modeling rigor, would be appropriate.

Data vs Algorithm Strategy

It is sometimes tempting to blend data considerations into algorithms, especially when one characteristic is dependent upon another.  For instance, corrosion rates are closely associated with material types.  So, an algorithm could say:  if pipematerial = steel then use steel-corr-rate, else use 0.  This practice should be avoided since it leads to unnecessarily complex algorithms and confuses the risk calculation with the data collection.  The better, long-term solution is to assign the potential corrosion rate in the database as a characteristic of pipe segment X in location Y.  The same if-then statement could be used for this assignment, but using it in the data integration phase rather than in the RA algorithm preserves its role as a characteristic—a piece of data.  The meta-data associated with the database will then capture if any ‘rules’ were used in assigning the data.

Reductionism can mean either (a) an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or (b) a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents.[1] This can be said of objects, phenomena, explanations, theories, and meanings.

Reductionism strongly reflects a certain perspective on causality. In a reductionist framework, phenomena that can be explained completely in terms of relations between other more fundamental phenomena, are called epiphenomena. Often there is an implication that the epiphenomenon exerts no causal agency on the fundamental phenomena that explain it.

Reductionism does not preclude the existence of what might be called emergent phenomena, but it does imply the ability to understand those phenomena completely in terms of the processes from which they are composed. This reductionist understanding is very different from that usually implied by the term ’emergence’, which typically intends that what emerges is more than the sum of the processes from which it emerges.

Future Inspection

The role of future inspections is an intervention opportunity in a chain of events that would otherwise lead to a failure.  Current PoF estimates are for short periods into the future—the next 1 to 3 years assuming conditions remain the same.  Under S1, inspection opportunities for the mostly buried pipe play a negligible role in risk estimates.  Under S2, the benefits of inspection would not be realized until potential degradation mechanisms had advanced to the point where their effects could be detected and corrected.  This would be beyond the period for which risk estimates are currently being produced.  The effect of time passage on risk can be modeled using the same data and tools used in this assessment, but a risk-over-time analyses has not yet been conducted.

Pipeline Risk Assessment—Problems with Weightings

The use of ‘weightings’ is the first target of this critical review of current common practice.  Weightings are most commonly used to steer risk assessment results towards pre-determined outcomes.  They are usually based on historical incident statistics—“20% of pipeline failures from external corrosion”; “30% from third party damage”; etc.  Implicit in the use of weightings is the assumption of a predictable distribution of future incidents and, most often, an accompanying assumption that the future distribution will exactly track the past distribution.  This practice introduces a bias that will almost always lead to very wrong conclusions for some pipeline segments.

The first problem with the use of weightings is the underlying assumption that the past will reliably predict the future.  Which past experience best represents the pipeline being assessed?  Using national statistics means including many pipelines with vastly different characteristics from the system you are assessing.  Using pipeline-specific statistics means (hopefully) a very limited amount of data.  What about historical changes in maintenance, inspection, and operation?  Shouldn’t those influence which data sets are most representative to future expectations?  Answering such questions forces unnecessary subjectivity into the analysis.

As an example of the additional folly of applying weightings, let’s look at a sample application.  Consider geotechnical threats such as landslides, erosion, or subsidence.  An assumed distribution of failure mechanisms will almost certainly assign a very low weighting to this failure mechanisms since most pipelines are not significantly threatened by the phenomena and, hence, incidents are rare.  But a geotechnical threat is a very real, although often very localized effect, on some pipeline segments.  So, while the assumed distribution is valid in the aggregate, there will be locations along some pipelines where the pre-set distribution is very wrong.  It would not at all be representative of the dominant failure mechanism at work there.  The weightings will often completely mask the real threat at such locations.

This is a classic difficulty in moving between behaviors of statistical populations and individual behaviors.  The former is reliably predictable—witness insurance actuarial analyses—but the latter is not.  Both ‘individual segment’ and ‘population of all segments’ estimates are useful, but for different intended uses.

So, apologies for a somewhat critical tone in this first installment.  It is solely in the interest of stimulating an awakening of sorts.  In modern pipeline risk assessment, the ‘perfect storm’ or ‘needle in the haystack’ analogies are appropriate.  The more obvious threats are well known and are likely already receiving a lot of resources from prudent operators.  It is the more obscure and the ‘improbable chain of events’ scenarios that will escape detection unless sufficient rigor is applied to the assessment.  As a first step in gaining such rigor, question the use of weightings.

Published June 2013

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