According to a recent authoritative report from Concawe*, the theft of oil from product pipelines is a fast-growing issue for European pipeline operators.
Over the years, a small number of third party-related spillages have resulted from successful or attempted product theft, and all of these occurred in Southern and Eastern Europe. However, a new trend began to emerge in 2011, with product theft events being reported in several areas of Europe, including in countries that had not been affected until that point. The number of reported cases has increased annually since then.
Concawe found that its reporting system for pipeline spillages was not providing a complete picture of the scale of product theft, since it only captured theft events that resulted in a spill. In response, Concawe carried out a special survey in 2015 to record both successful and attempted product theft incidents in the European oil pipeline network since the beginning of the decade.
The theft-incident survey performed by Concawe in mid-2015 was updated in early 2016 to capture the total number of events recorded in 2015. It included all 78 operators who regularly contribute to the annual spillage survey, 57 of which responded, representing nearly 90 per cent of the total inventory. Eighteen operators – representing 60 per cent of the total inventory – reported theft attempts in eight countries spread across Europe. It is believed that all operators who suffered theft attempts responded, meaning that Concawe was able to capture virtually all such events in Europe.
As would be expected, white product pipelines (gasoline, diesel, jet fuel) were found to be frequent targets, and 93 per cent of all events involved theft attempts from these lines. While 25 incidents affecting crude oil lines were reported, there was evidence that in eight of these cases the crude oil line was targeted in error. Eighteen of the incidents on crude oil lines were in the same country.
Concawe reported that thieves generally targeted buried pipeline sections in relatively isolated areas, mostly rural or semi-rural and with some form of vegetation cover. A reported 78 per cent of illegal tappings were in underground sections; other cases involved aboveground installations, particularly valve stations. The type of land-use was reported for about a third of all recorded cases: 84 per cent of cases were in rural areas of either open land or shrub, while the balance of cases involved more public areas such as carparks, lay-bys, or even buildings.
The distance between the tapping and collection point was found to vary considerably, from under 10 m to up to 1 km, and the type of hose used also varied widely from specialist high-pressure hoses to low-pressure garden hoses, which are often unable to withstand the pressure in the pipeline and therefore fail, leading to spillage or injury.
Abstraction of product at low flow rates, and often intermittently, can be difficult to detect and some tappings may remain unnoticed for long periods. Leak-detection systems, together with monitoring by control-room operators, are the most competent means of discovery. Theft incidents may also be reported by third parties in the event that connections leak, and passers by or land owners see or smell hydrocarbons.
The 2010–2015 theft incident survey confirmed the importance of recording the number of attempted product theft incidents, as well as the number of incidents associated with reportable product spills. Accordingly, the annual Concawe survey of pipeline operators will be updated in 2017 to include summary data on attempted theft incidents. This will allow Concawe to track the development of this new phenomenon, and monitor the success of measures taken by both operators and authorities to address this issue.
*Product theft from oil pipelines, Concawe Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2016, www.concaswe.org