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Power Law Analysis Implications of the San Bruno Pipeline Failure

[+] Author Affiliations
Ken Oliphant, Wayne Bryce, William Luff

JANA Corporation, Aurora, ON, Canada

Paper No. IPC2016-64512, pp. V002T01A017; 6 pages
  • 2016 11th International Pipeline Conference
  • Volume 2: Pipeline Safety Management Systems; Project Management, Design, Construction and Environmental Issues; Strain Based Design; Risk and Reliability; Northern Offshore and Production Pipelines
  • Calgary, Alberta, Canada, September 26–30, 2016
  • Conference Sponsors: Pipeline Division
  • ISBN: 978-0-7918-5026-6
  • Copyright © 2016 by ASME


When major pipeline incidents occur there is always a question as to how applicable the learnings from that incident are across the industry. To address this question for the San Bruno pipeline failure in 2010, an analysis of historical transmission pipeline industry events was conducted to determine if San Bruno was consistent with past industry performance or whether it was an outlier event. This paper draws on Power Law analysis to generate a characteristic curve of past transmission pipeline accidents in the US. Power Law, or Pareto, behavior has been observed for a wide variety of phenomenon, such as fire damage, earthquake damage and terrorist attacks. The size of these events is seen to follow not the typical normal distribution but the Power Law distribution, where low probability - high consequence (LPHC) events play a more significant role in the overall risk picture. Analysis shows that the consequences of pipeline incidents in a variety of pipeline industries (gas distribution, gas transmission, gas gathering and hazardous liquid pipelines) are seen to exhibit Power Law behavior. The Power Law model is seen to capture the distribution of the size of consequences from pipeline incidents and defines the relationship between the size of an incident and its frequency. Through characterization of these distributions, it is possible to project the likelihood or expected frequency of events of a given magnitude and to assess if a given incident fits within historical industry patterns; i.e. whether the incident is consistent with past observations or is an outlier.

The Power Law analysis shows that the San Bruno incident, which caused eight fatalities and an estimated $380 million in property damage in 2010, is not an outlier. Rather, this incident lies on the Power Law curve for historical transmission pipeline incidents, with an estimated frequency of once every 40 years. The event is consistent with the history of gas transmission pipeline consequences in the US. This paper argues that the San Bruno incident, therefore, provides lessons relevant to the industry as whole.

Copyright © 2016 by ASME
Topics: Pipelines , Failure



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