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T. V. Bruno, Metallurgical Consultants, Inc.


The causes of pipeline failures can be classified into a few major categories as
determined from government statistics. Of these categories two, outside force and
corrosion, account for more than half of all service failures in both gas and liquid
pipelines. The two major causes as well as the less common causes are explained and the
current technology for prevention of pipeline failures is discussed.


Pipelines transport a variety of hazardous fluids, including natural gas, LPG, anhydrous
ammonia, crude oil, gasoline and other refined petroleum products. As a result, pipeline
failures can have a number of serious consequences ranging from pollution of the air,
lakes and rivers, to property damage, to personal injuries and loss of life. The Office of
Pipeline Safety was established in 1968 at which time Congress enacted the Natural Gas
Pipeline Safety Act followed by the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act in 1974 and
the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act in 1979. These laws require reporting of
pipeline failures ("incidents") to the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the reports
provide a statistical base for evaluating the causes of pipeline failures. This paper will
first review some of the available statistical data, discuss the various causes reported with
appropriate examples and discuss means of preventing pipeline failures.


The DOT reports on natural gas pipeline incidents for the 10-year period 1985 through
1994 have been reviewed under the auspices of the Pipeline Research Committee of the
American Gas Association.(1) For the review, the failures were categorized by causes and
tabulated. As shown in Figure l, the most common cause was external force from
encroachment, which covers damage caused by third parties, pipeline operators and their
contractors, and vandalism. As will be discussed, the most common form of this type of
damage is a combination of a dent and gouge. The second most common cause of gas
pipeline failures is corrosion, which includes both internal and external corrosion. External
force from weather, including earth movement, heavy rains and floods, lightning and cold
weather, is the third most common cause. External force and corrosion account for more
than 66 percent of all gas pipeline failures. The other causes are: operator error, equipment
malfunction, defective welds, defective pipe and others.

7701 PARNELL  P.O. BOX 88046  HOUSTON, TEXAS 77288-0046  PHONE: (713) 526-6351  Fax: (713) 526-2964
Unfortunately, the causes of failures of liquid pipelines have not been reviewed as
thoroughly as for gas pipelines. The ASME B31.4 committee has appointed a Task Group
to review the DOT reports on liquid pipeline failures but the task group has not yet
published a report. However, data from 1994 and 1995 were available from the OPS web
site on the Internet (http:\\\opstats.htm) and data for 1996 was published in
The Houston Chronicle.(2) The combined data for the three years is shown in Figure 2. The
liquid pipeline data has a much larger percent of other and the external force category is
not subdivided.

Even though the numbers are different, the rankings are similar, with external force and
corrosion accounting for most of the failures.


The most serious type of damage from an external force is a combination of a gouge and
dent. Gouging damages the surface of the pipe by creating hard, brittle surface layers that
have low resistance to crack initiation. Denting changes the contour of the pipe, thereby
creating local areas of high strain. When a pipeline is damaged, it may fail immediately or
may continue to operate for some time before failing. The conditions that determine the
failure behavior of damaged pipe include the extent and nature of the damage, the
properties of the pipe and the operating conditions at the time of the damage. Severe
damage, low fracture toughness and high pressure promote immediate failure as opposed to
delayed failure.

Failure of pipe that survives the initial damage results either from a subsequent increase in
pressure or from crack growth with time. Cracks can grow by a number of mechanisms,
such as ductile crack extension, fatigue and environmentally-induced cracking. Ductile
crack extension is a form of crack growth that results from pressuring a flaw close to but
just below its failure pressure, fatigue is caused by cyclic stresses and environmentally-
induced cracking results from an interaction of stresses and the environment.

Figures 3 through 5 show the type damage caused by a dent and gouge.

A uniform dent usually is not serious and will be rounded out by internal pressure.
However, dents can lead to fatigue failures under conditions where pressures fluctuate
and the dent is only partially rounded out.

The most obvious means of preventing failures due to encroachment is to prevent the
encroachment, which is much easier said than done. Extensive efforts have been exerted
to post warning signs, improve marking of pipeline right-of-ways, increase public
awareness and to promote one-call notification systems whereby the locations of
pipelines in a given area can be determined by a single call. Despite these efforts,
encroachment damage continues as the single most common cause of pipeline failures.

For pipe that has not ruptured, inspection with smart pigs and, in some cases, sizing pigs,
can detect plain dents and other types of damage. Damaged areas can often be repaired
with full-encirclement sleeves without having to shut down the pipeline.

Weather Related
This category, which was broken out only for gas pipelines, includes failures related to cold
weather, earth movement, heavy rains and floods, and lightning. Cold weather failures
cover those caused by thermal stresses, freezing and frost heave. Earth movement
(subsidence and landslides), frost heave and heavy rains and floods cause abnormal axial
and bending stresses. These stresses will fracture weak or defective girth welds and, if high
enough, will fracture sound welds or the adjacent pipe base metal. They can also cause
buckling. Lightning can cause small craters that penetrate the pipe wall causing leaks.

Some cold weather failures can be prevented by designing to account far contraction and
by procedures to prevent water from freezing in pipe and other components. While
resistance to forces from ground movement, frost heave, rains and floods can be
optimized by good quality girth welds, it may be difficult to anticipate where special
requirements might be required to prevent fracture of the pipe base metal. The use of
heavier wall pipe and automatic shut-off valves has been proposed to mitigate damage
but these and similar proposals are the subject of continued discussion and some
controversy. (2)

The causes of lightning damage to pipelines have not been elucidated, consequently it is
not clear how best to prevent such failures. Some of the important factors appear to be the
characteristics of the coating and the conductivity of the surrounding soil.

External Causes
Table I summarizes the causes of pipeline corrosion. External corrosion in the form of
pitting and general metal loss results from either coating defects, inadequate cathodic
protection or both. Figure 6 illustrates typical coating defects: "holidays" (holes) in the
coating, disbonded areas where moisture can accumulate on the pipe under the coating
and permeability by which the coating absorbs moisture. Figures 7 and 8 show typical
pipeline failures caused by external corrosion.

Inadequate cathodic protection results from conditions whereby there is insufficient

current for the particular conditions and can result from a poorly designed system, "hot
spots" that require special treatment and other causes. Interference from other pipelines or
metal structures can lead to localized corrosion and shorting of casing can lead to
corrosion of pipe at cased crossings.

Stress-corrosion cracking is a type of failure that results from the combination of stresses
in the pipe and accumulation of moisture at defects in the coating in conjunction with the
electrical potential created by cathodic protection. The most common type of stress-
corrosion cracking is due to carbonates and bicarbonates that create a solution with a
relatively high pH (e.g., approximately 9.0) and causes intergranular cracking. The first
instance of this type of cracking in pipelines was reported more than 30 years ago. More
recently, instances of transgranular stress-corrosion cracking caused by solutions with a
lower pH (e.g., approximately 6-8) have been reported.(3) Both types result in clusters of
cracks that can grow to critical size and cause leaks or ruptures. Figures 9 through 12
show examples of intergranular stress-corrosion cracking.

Hydrogen-stress cracking is related to cathodic protection and is therefore included under

corrosion-related failure mechanisms. It results from the absorption of hydrogen
generated by cathodic protection at locations of hard spots in the pipe. The capacity of
steel to absorb hydrogen without cracking is a function of the hardness of the steel: hard
steels have very low tolerance for hydrogen. Failures from hydrogen-stress cracking have
generally occurred in older pipelines at local areas where the hardness was greater than 360

Improved coatings and cathodic protection are the prime means of combating external
corrosion. Consequently, most of the corrosion failures are on older pipe, particularly pipe
with coal-tar enamel coatings and to a lesser extent tape coatings. Newer fusion-bonded
epoxy coatings, polyethylene and multilayer coatings have longer life and offer greater
corrosion protection.

Improved coatings also appear to be the best defense against stress-corrosion cracking. All
of the reported failures in gas pipelines included in Figure 1 due to stress-corrosion
cracking were in pipe installed before 1959, when coal-tar and asphalt coatings were the
most commonly used. Therefore, the quality and longevity of the coating appear to be
significant factors. Other factors, including temperature, cathodic protection potential,
pressure cycles and other operational variables also influence cracking but control of these
variables has not proven to be a practical means of preventing cracking.

Hydrogen-stress cracking can be eliminated by eliminating hard spots in line pipe by

quality control and inspection during manufacture. Moreover, many modern pipeline steels
that rely on controlled rolling and micro alloying are not as susceptible to hard spots as the
older steels.
Some failures can be prevented by early detection of coating degradation and corrosion
damage. New types of cathodic protection surveys have been developed to accurately
locate areas of corrosion along a pipeline,(5,6) which can then be excavated and
appropriate remedial measures taken. Inspection with smart pigs can also be sued to
detect metal loss and hard spots; some newer types of inspection pigs are also designed to
detect stress-corrosion and other types of cracking. Depending on the type and extent,
some types of corrosion can be repaired or ignored. ASME B31G (7) gives a method for
evaluating external corrosion on pipelines.

Hydrostatic testing, by which the pipeline is subjected to a pressure above the operating
pressure to "blow out" defects before they reach a critical size in service, is also used to
detect corroded pipe before it fails in service. The difference between the test pressure
and the operating pressure constitutes a margin of safety. In some cases, hydrostatic
testing must be repeated periodically because of continuing corrosion or flaw growth in

Internal Causes
The primary cause of internal corrosion is water; dry gas and water-free liquids do not
corrode pipelines. Water in pipelines absorbs oxygen (02), hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and
carbon dioxide (CO2). Oxygen alone generally causes the least severe corrosion. Both
HZS and C02, either singly or in combination, reduce the pH and can lead to severe
localized attack. Pipeline failures from corrosion nearly always result from pitting or
other types of localized attack rather than uniform metal loss.

Erosion can also contribute to internal pipeline corrosion by eroding away protective
scales and exposing fresh metal to attack. Erosion-corrosion is particularly a problem
with CO2 corrosion. Figures 13 and 14 show a failure caused by internal corrosion that
was aggravated by erosion-corrosion.

Corrosion is often concentrated at low spots in a pipeline where water and deposits
accumulate. The presence of deposits creates an electrochemical cell whereby the
material beneath the deposit is attacked preferentially. Deposits also promote the growth
of bacteria that can lead to a type of corrosion known as Microbiologically Influenced
Corrosion (MIC). One of the more common corrosion-causing microbes is sulfate
reducing bacteria, which generates H2S from reduction of sulfates. Colonies of these and
other types of bacteria tend to form beneath deposits and may remain dormant for long
periods and then spread rapidly when conditions become more conducive to growth.

Corrosion by H2S can also lead to several related types of cracking caused by hydrogen.
When steel corrodes in an aqueous environment, hydrogen ions are generated. Depending
upon the circumstances, the ions may combine on the surface of the steel to form
hydrogen gas and bubble off harmlessly. The presence of H2S retards or "poisons" the
reaction whereby two ions combine to form hydrogen gas and consequently promote the
absorption of hydrogen ions into the steel.

In pipelines the most common type of cracking caused by H2S is Hydrogen-Induced

Cracking (HIC), also known as stepwise cracking (SWC). It results from the
accumulation of hydrogen atoms at linear discontinuities in the steel, most commonly at
elongated manganese sulfide inclusions. The accumulated atoms react to form hydrogen
gas. Since one hydrogen molecule is much larger than two hydrogen atoms, the reaction is
accompanied by a large increase in pressure. If the hydrogen accumulates at discontinuities
near the surface, it can cause hydrogen blisters. If it accumulates further from the surface it
can cause parallel cracks to form along the rolling direction of the steel, which can link-up
across the thickness direction in a stepwise fashion. This type of cracking is independent of
stress. However, under similar conditions where stresses are high, cracks tend to form
perpendicular to the direction of stress; this type of cracking is called Stress-Oriented
Hydrogen-Induced Cracking or SOHIC. Figure 15 illustrates the formation of HIC and
SOHIC in pipelines.

Only wrought steels are susceptible to HIC and SOHIC; castings and welds are not

Sulfide-stress cracking (SSC) is another form of cracking caused by H2S Corrosion. Only
relatively hard steels are susceptible and SSC is also influenced by stress levels; high
stresses promote cracking. The hardness of most pipeline steels is low enough that they are
not susceptible to SSC. However, there have been SSC failures of pipelines at hard

The various types of damage caused by H2S are often associated; the conditions
contributing to one type of damage can contribute to other types of damage. Figure 16
illustrates the different types of damage and Figure 17 summarizes the effects of hardness
and stress.

The most effective means of preventing internal pipeline corrosion is to eliminate water.
Dehydration of gases and periodic pigging of lines to remove accumulations of water and
deposits are effective in preventing or mitigating all types of internal corrosion. However,
it is not always possible to dehydrate or pig. Corrosion inhibitors and biocides can be
effective against metal-loss types of corrosion, usually in conjunction with a corrosion-
monitoring program using coupons or corrosion probes. Inhibitors are not as effective
against HIC and SSC. The most reliable means of preventing H2S cracking is to use
resistant materials as covered by industry guidelines. (9,10)
In some cases, pipelines with internal corrosion can be rehabilitated using in-place
coating or liners.(11) Rehabilitation can often be accomplished at a fraction of the cost of

Grooving Corrosion of Electric-Resistance Welded Pipe

Grooving corrosion is a form of localized attack in which the weld of electric-resistance
welded (ERW) pipe corrodes preferentially, leaving a groove along which the pipe may
leak or rupture. Grooving corrosion can occur on the outside or the inside surface of the
pipe, or both, wherever conditions are conducive to corrosion. Grooving corrosion is
important because it has been responsible for a number of serious pipeline failures.
Figures 18 and 19 illustrate grooving corrosion.

Susceptibility to grooving corrosion is a function of the properties of both the steel base
metal and the weld. Low-sulfur steel and inclusion shape control reduce susceptibility as
does proper post-weld heat treatment.(12-15) All of the failures from grooving corrosion
included in the gas pipeline failure statistics occurred in pipe manufactured before 1970.

Because it is simply a localized acceleration of more general attack, grooving corrosion
can be prevented by controlling internal and external pipeline corrosion. The
susceptibility of ERW pipe to grooving corrosion can be reduced or eliminated by control
of manufacturing variables. Detection of grooving corrosion in older pipe has generally
relied on hydrostatic testing; at present it cannot be reliably detected by inspection pigs.


Causes of Failure
Defects in the pipe and in welds account for a relatively small proportion of pipeline
failures for two principal reasons. One is improvements in manufacturing and welding
technology and in inspection capabilities in recent years. The other is pre-service
hydrostatic testing, which eliminates critical defects before a pipeline is put into service.
Service failures from defects in pipe and welds usually result from growth of the defects
in service or from an increase in stresses, such as might occur from ground subsidence or
weather-related outside forces. Figures 20 through 23 illustrate a failure caused by lack of
penetration at the root of a girth weld in conjunction with fatigue in service.

Corrosion and fatigue can also cause service failures at manufacturing defects (for a
description of manufacturing defects in line pipe see Reference 16). For example,
laminations in pipe in sour service can lead to hydrogen blistering and HIC.Similarly,
laminations and large seams can lead to fatigue from pressure cycles, particularly in
liquid lines.
A large percent of pipeline failures caused by manufacturing defects have occurred in
the seam welds of older ERW pipe. This pipe is susceptible to a number of types of
defects in the seam weld that could grow in service to a critical size to cause a leak or
rupture. Moreover, the fracture toughness of this pipe was generally poor compared to
today's standards. Improvements in the steel, the manufacturing and welding processes,
and in nondestructive testing have significantly improved the reliability of ERW line

Submerged-arc welded (SAW) pipe seldom fails in service due to defects in the seam
welds, although hydrostatic failures have occurred from a number of types of weld

The other category of weld failures includes girth welds and fabrication welds for
branch connections, hot taps, repair sleeves and the like. Failures at defective girth
welds generally are related to some type of abnormal stress. Defective girth welds are
most susceptible to failure from axial stresses but the stresses from internal pressure are
highest in the circumferential direction. Consequently, even girth welds with serious
defects can withstand internal pressure stresses without failing. However, forces that
induce bending or tensile stresses across the weld can lead to fracture.

Fabrication welds are more susceptible to failure than girth welds partly because they are
more difficult to inspect. In addition, some types of fabrication welds, particularly fillet
welds on sleeves, are more susceptible to delayed hydrogen cracking than are girth welds.
Delayed cracking from hydrogen generated during welding is a common cause of
cracking in the heat-affected zones and, less frequently, in the weld metal of pipeline

Prevention of failures from defective pipe and welds in new construction is largely a
matter of quality control and inspection. In recent years, industry standards and
regulations have become more restrictive with respect to quality, inspection and testing.
In addition, many manufacturers have more stringent internal standards and many
purchasers have supplemental requirements in addition to industry standards.

For older pipelines, inspection pigs and periodic hydrostatic testing are the only practical
means for detecting flaws associated with manufacturing defects that may be growing.


Equipment malfunction includes mechanical failure of pipeline components, such as
stripped threads, fractured couplings, leaking gaskets and pump seals, etc., as well as
failure of components such as valves, pressure relief devices, regulators, etc., to function
properly. Operator error refers to failures caused by human error in the operation of
equipment or to failures due to safety related incidents, like ignition of volatile vapors
during welding or cutting operations.

Prevention of failures caused by equipment malfunction is a matter of choosing the right
equipment and of proper maintenance and testing appropriate to the particular equipment.
For example, thermowells designed with screwed connections that are not suitable for
welding can fail if seal-welded; threaded connections must be properly lubricated and
protected from corrosion; gaskets and seals must be periodically inspected; etc.

This category includes miscellaneous causes that do not fit under any of the specific
causes as well as failures for which the cause was not determined. Most of the
miscellaneous causes involve failures in compressor stations and other facilities along a
pipeline rather than the pipeline itself.

In a previous report(17) on the cause of pipeline service incidents from 1970 through 1978,
outside forces accounted for 55.5 percent of the failures and corrosion 15.6 percent.
While these two causes continue to account for a large proportion of failures, damage
from outside forces appear to be declining while the percent of failures from corrosion is
increasing. The technology to prevent failures from corrosion is readily available and
corrosion failures should continue to decline. The challenge appears to be how best to
prevent failures from outside forces.

T. V. Bruno
1. Patrick H. Vieth, Analysis of DOT Reportable Incidents, Ninth Symposium on
Line Pipe Research, Paper 2, Houston, Texas, September 30 - October 2, 1996.

2. Chris Woodgard, Catastrophe Looms for Old Fuel Pipelines, The Houston
Chronicle, February 23, 1967.

3. W. Zheng, R. W. Revie, O. Dinardo, F. A. MacLeod, W. R. Tyson and D. Kiff,

Pipeline SCC in Near-Neutral pH Environments: Effects of Environmental and
Metallurgical Variables, Ninth Symposium on Line Pipe Research, Paper 22,
Houston, Texas, September 30 - October 2, 1996.

4. T. P. Groeneveld and R. R. Fessler, Hydrogen Stress Cracking Overview and

Controls, Sixth Symposium on Line Pipe Research, Paper Y-l, Houston, Texas,
October 29 - November 1, 1979.

5. Mark E. Rizzo and Tom Wildman, Reducing ReConditioning Costs Using

Computerized CP Survey Technology, CORROSION/97, Paper No. 97579, New
Orleans, Louisiana; March 11 and 12, 1997.

6. Basant Bardalai, Pipeline Rehabilitation Surveys for Prioritizing Coat/Wrap

Repairs of Old Cross Country Pipelines, CORROSION/97, Paper No. 97561,
New Orleans, Louisiana, March 11 and 12, 1997.

7. Manual for Determining the Remaining Strength of Corroded Pine, ASME

B31G-1991, Supplement to ASME B31 Code for Pressure Piping.

8. T. V. Bruno, SSC Resistance of Pipeline Welds, Materials Performance,

January 1993, pp. 58-64.

9. Sulfide-Stress Cracking Resistant Metallic Materials for Oilfield Equipment,

NACE Standard MR0175.

10. Guidelines on Materials Requirements for Carbon and Low Alloy Steels for H2S-
Containing Environments in Oil and Gas Production, European Federation of
Corrosion Publication Number 16, 1985.

11. Daniel B. Lebsack and Dorwin Ernest Hawn, Internal Pipeline Rehabilitation
Using Polyamide Liners, CORROSION/97, Paper No. 97560, New Orleans,
Louisiana, March 11 and 12, 1997.
12. C. Kato, Y. Otoguro, S. Kado and Y. Hiszamatsu, Grooving Corrosion in
Electric-Resistance Welded Steel Pipe in Seawater, Corrosion Science, 1978,
Pergamon Press, Printed in Great Britain, Vol. 18, pp. 61-74.
13. Masamura, Katsumi, Iwao Matsushima, Grooving Corrosion of Electric-
Resistance Welded Steel Pipe in Water Case Histories and Effects of Alloying
Elements, CORROSION/81, April 6 - 10, 1981, Sheraton Centre, Toronto,
Ontario, Canada.
14. William E. Heitmann, Peter D. Southwick and Frank Pausic, ERW Line Pipe:
The Effect of Welding and Annealing Upon the Properties, Microstructure and
Corrosion Resistance, from HSLA Steels, Technology & and Applications, ASM,
1984, pp. 957-966.
15. C. Duran, E. Treiss and G. Herbsleb, The Resistance of High-Frequency
Inductive Welding Pipe to Grooving Corrosion in Salt Water, Salt Water
Corrosion, September 1986, pp. 41-48.
16. Bulletin on Imperfection Terminology, API Bulletin ST1, Ninth Edition, May
31, 1988.
17. Donald N. Gideon and Robert B. Smith, An Analysis of Reportable Incidents for
Natural Gas Transmission and Gathering Lines 1970 through 1978, Pipeline
Research Committee - American Gas Association, NG-18 Report No. 121, AGA
Catalog No. L11678, September 10, 1980.
5.2% Equipment Malfunction
4.1% Defective Weld
23.5% Corrosion
3.6% Defective Pipe
6.5% Operator

10.4% Other

32.7% External Force 10.2% External Force

Encroachment Weather



Figure 1

5.2% Equipment Malfunction

5.8% Defective Weld
22.5% Corrosion
5.6% Defective Pipe
7.3% Operator Error

27.5% External Force 26.1% Other



Figure 2

Coating Defect: Holidays Water Plus: O2
Disbonding H2S
Permiability CO2
Microbial Induced Corrosion Deposits
Indadequate Cathodic Protection Microbial Induced Corrosion
Shorted Casing Hydrogen Induced Cracking
Stress-Corrosion Cracking Sulfide-Stress Cracking (H2S)
Hydrogen-Stress Cracking (at hard spots)

Table 1

Figure 3
Figure 4

Figure 5
Figure 6
Schematic illustration of three possible types of defects in coatings.

Figure 7
Figure 8

Figure 9
Figure 10

Figure 11
Figure 12

Figure 13
Figure 14

Figure 15
Illustration of hydrogen absorption causing HIC/SWC and SOHIC.
Figure 16
Schematic illustrations of different types of hydrogen damage.




Type of Damage
Occurs in Independent Occurs at Independent
Blistering and HIC Not susceptible
soft steels of stress low hardness of stress

Occurs in Stress Occurs at Stress

SOHIC Not susceptible
soft steels dependent low hardness dependent

Occurs in
Occurs in Stress Stress Occurs at Stress
SSC welds of high
hard steels dependent dependent high hardness dependent

Note: Soft Steels are those below and hard steel those above approximately Rockwell C22.

Figure 17
Figure 18
Note: Grooving ratio=
d1 d2

Original pipe surface

Depth of general
Depth of selective

Figure 19
Figure 20

Figure 21
Figure 22

Figure 23