Pipelines Environment Issues

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Pipelines are the integral part of modern life although people do not think of them so often. Most people recall ‘pipes’ when talking about the hot and cold water in their homes. Majority of them can surely approve they have seen some plastic pipes laid under their streets and roads. Everybody knows about pipelines practical usage – to distribute natural gas. Nevertheless, few of those people would ever think about other kinds of pipelines. These are the large ones, which long for hundreds of thousands of kilometers crossing the oceans delivering huge quantities of crude oil, oil products, and gas. Most of them are hidden underground or undersea.

While ‘crude’ oil can be frequently transported between continents in huge tankers, oil and natural gas has to be transmitted across continents by pipelines. To recognize the importance of the pipelines one should realize that they are the main ‘arteries’ of the oil and gas business. Nothing, but pipelines can be working 24 hours per day, seven days a week, supplying people energy needs without interruption. Nothing, but pipelines can satisfy the huge oil and gas needs of the planet.

Oil companies are well aware of that fact.  As far as the demand for oil and gas rises with every single year, they get profit of it. Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil company is but one vivid example. In January 2006, it announced profits of $US36 billion, the largest ever by a listed company. In February 2006, British Shell announced a record profit: $US23 billion (Hopkins, 2008). These profits are likely to grow in the near future since the price of a barrel of oil increases, as well.

Because of the increasing demand, more and more pipelines are needed to be established.  For now, pipeline infrastructure has grown by a factor of 100 in more or less 50 years. According to predicted oil production, the world pipeline expansion could be up to 7% per year over the next 15 years. For that, over 8000km/Annum of new pipelines must have being built in the USA alone (Hopkins, 2008).

Speaking of that two recent pipeline proposals have to be mentioned. These are the Keystone XL in the United States and the Northern Gateway in Canada. The Enbridge Corporation has proposed northern Gateway Pipeline Project. The pipeline would carry oil 1,170km from the Alberta tar sands through a pipeline to the coast of Kitimat, BC, where it would be loaded onto giant oil tankers for transport to various markets (Environmental Issues, 2013). Keystone XL pipeline has been proposed by TransCanada’s. Though it was proposed in 2005, the project is still in anticipation of official approval from the U.S. State Department. This pipeline system is intended to transmit oil from Alberta to Nebraska, and allow even easier access to the U.S. market for Albertan oil and gas resources (Mallany, 2013). Many oil producers and refiners have signed contracts to start delivering thousands of barrels of oil daily to the American market as soon as the project is completed.

Unfortunately, for TransCanada and its followers, Keystone XL has faced abundant problems even as attempting to get official approval. Because of the constant protests from environmental activists and specific regulatory requirements, the project was prevented from even beginning construction. Keystone XL even became the topic of the 2012 Presidential race in American politics. The discussion was between President Barack Obama and his competitor Mitt Romney over whether or not to approve the pipeline. Finally, after elections, President Barack Obama has stalled the Keystone pipeline installation, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has actually been trying to speed up the installation of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline in Canada (MacCUish, 2011).

Besides the two main pipelines mentioned, a number of public policy issues is challenging others. Many other pipeline projects have bumped into the same problem. Among them, proposals to ship Western Canadian resources towards New Brunswick and Canada’s East Coast are in the list. Besides the numerous public policies influencing these pipelines, one specific issue is commonly mentioned in the pipeline debates. It is related to the environmental impacts of proposed projects and their roots. This is the exact reason why huge pipelines receive so much public attention. Huge pipelines can cause serious damage for the environment. The main debates therefore are between those who support pipelines and those who disapprove them. The former claim pipelines to be the safest and cheapest way to deliver fossil fuels. They insist on the pipelines’ vital importance to the well-being of society. Meanwhile, the latter argue about the potential risk of oil spills represented by images of oil fountains from ruptures and oil-slicked birds.

Both sides can speak their opinions about pipelines during an environmental assessment of a pipeline project. The purpose of this assessment is to examine environmental effects associated with the project as defined. The whole pipeline project usually includes the construction, operation and decommissioning of the pipelines. The main steps to be taken then are the installation of the pipeline in accordance to the pipeline’s route. The other important point is to install accompanying pumping stations designed for maintaining the flow and supporting infrastructure.

One of the reasons public might be against the pipelines is their unreliability. Depending on their material, they can serve their purposes for a different amount of time. The most common flaws of pipelines are their vulnerability to the ruptures. The main reasons for the ruptures are permanent ground deformation and wave propagation. Ground deformation can incorporate landslide, liquefaction, fault rupture, and associated lateral spreading as well as settlement. Pipelines can compress, wrinkle, be separated, bend and shear because of localized wrinkling and tension. Another significant problem is a corrosion of the pipes. Particularly, pipelines that transport wet gas need a special attention for that matter. These pipelines may contain a great amount of C02, H2S, and other acids, which make the pipeline environment potentially very corrosive. Oil and gas companies must implement a corrosion management program to ensure the proper application of the corrosion control. To avoid corrosion carbon steel should be used as predominant material for those pipelines.

With only one of these damages, oil pipelines can explode and “give birth” to oil spills. The consequences may vary depending on pipeline’s contents, diameter, and the pressure of its contents. They in turn lead to environmental contamination with chemicals and oil. The results of the gas pipelines fail are a bit different. The two main categories of its contents are liquid fuels and natural gas. Gas released through failures in small diameter gas mains will dissipate quickly as a rule. Meanwhile, failure of large diameter natural gas pipelines can bring an explosion able to damage neighboring structures and facilities (for instance power transmission lines). Leakage of gasoline can result in a fire with the existence of the ignition source. For other liquids like diesel, the potential for a fire is low, but still would result in environmental contamination.

Still the more serious negative impacts are expected from the installation of the huge oil pipelines, as mentioned earlier. The opponents of the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Keystone XL Projects have formidable arguments against these pipelines. The concerns about the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project are the following: pipeline can leak anywhere along their 1170kms root; and to transport the oil from the port to market super tankers will be needed. They again can collide and spill the oil. The tankers would also increase noise above and underwater. Alberta Tar Sands, the most energy intensive and carbon heavy oil possible sands would expand. The oil spills threat the environment of ecosystems broadening across Western Canada. This ocean area is home to more than 120 species of sea birds, 27 species of marine mammals (together with threatened and endangered species) and many fish stocks (Environmental issues, 2013). It can affect not only ocean fauna but the local First Nations communities, as well. For them, coast is like a home. Oil spills will foul up harvesting grounds and threat traditional food hunting. Through the ocean currents, spills can spread rapidly all over the west coast of North America.

Therefore, environmental groups, anglers, and aboriginal communities oppose the pipeline. They object against the oil sands themselves and the increased extraction of oil from it. These processes may bring the air pollution, as well as the pollution of the neighboring lakes, rivers and watersheds. Oil spills would destroy wildlife habitats, release large amounts of greenhouse gases and threaten the health of surrounding communities. As far as the pipelines will run through the Mackenzie, Fraser and Skeena watersheds, communities of those places are running the risk of health problems at the first place. Hence, they are essentially concerned about the possibility of a large oil spill or leak.

The qualms of the Keystone XL pipeline project are the following. It will cross over a great amount of waterways, including major rivers. Bitumen, the heavy oil, transported by this pipeline is very hard to remove. It sinks below water, mixing with sand and other ground. TransCanada calculates that this pipeline would have only 11 serious spills in 50 years. Nevertheless, the Keystone I pipeline had over 12 spills in its first year (Stansbury, 2011). The consequences of the spills are always damage for the earth in some way. Plants are suffering, animals are dying, and water becomes unsafe to drink. Depending on the project and jurisdiction, the indirect effects of environmental pollution are the change of socio-economic and cultural conditions, especially for the Aboriginal peoples.

The other environmental effects of the pipelines include the following:

Affection of the air quality. Air can be polluted by dust during construction and by air contaminants released by the burning of fossil fuels. The latter are commonly used for construction equipment and pumping stations. Comparing to that, emissions of greenhouse gases lose their urgency and importance although the problem still exists.

Increase of the noises. These are the result of construction activities and operation of pumping stations.

Damage of soils. Soils can suffer from erosion, mixing, contamination and removal. The other issue they can be acidulated by the emissions of chemicals as the source of acid rain.

Threat to the land vegetation. It includes old growth forests and rare plants. All these can be affected by surface disturbance, changes in water flows, the arrival of alien species and air contamination.

Risks to sea habitat. Installing of pipelines can influence the life of sea inhabitants make them move or alter. Its noise can change access and sightlines for predators and pipelines as such can create barriers to movement. Besides some activities related to the pipelines can affect the productive capacity of fish. Usually it has a negative impact on fish migration, health and mortality as well.

Affection of quality and quantity of water. Constant excavations, herbicide usage and erosion are the key factors which influence the water.

Damage to the seabed. Pipelines provoke increase of water turbidity, releases of nutrients and hazardous substances and impacts on bottom currents. Tunnel construction affects surface and groundwater flow. 

It threatens scientific heritage. Pipelines construction can affect fossil resources, inherent for the scientific understanding of evolution and climate change. It can also constitute a menace to the cultural heritage, such as the shipwrecks.

Oil spills also affect fishing and the safety of people. Fishery of poisoned fish can have dreadful consequences to human health.

Regardless of all these threats and negative impacts, the world leading oil companies insist that risks are minimal. They state that ruptures are becoming less frequent and keep on increasing the total length of pipelines over 6 % per year. The risks of ruptures and releases are even higher with the pipelines transmitting diluted bitumen (dilbit). Dilbit is commonly known as less safe for transporting than oil and is said to be more acidic and corrosive comparing to other forms of crude oil being transported.

The environmental effects of a spill may as well vary in the harm caused. It depends on the liability of the region, its characteristics and the simplicity of response. Even a small spill in the wrong place can cause more harm than the bigger ones. For instance, Enbridge has experienced the Kalamazoo River spill. After the cleanup, the Kalamazoo River was closed for almost two years. That time was needed for the recovery of normal water conditions. As for the worst case spills, the few can be mentioned. These were the oil spills in the Nebraska Sandhills above the Olagala Aquifer (near 7.9 million gallons), at the Yellowstone River (near 6.9 million gallons), at the Platte River (near 5.9 million gallons) and the Missouri River (near 5.2 million gallons) (Stansbury, 2011).

Though for instance Enbridge claims that their pipelines are safe, the statistics is the opposite. Recently Enbridge has had a number of environmentally destructive spills from their presented projects. In the period from 1999 to 2008, Enbridge itself registered 610 spills that released almost 132,000 barrels of hydrocarbons (Environmental Issues, 2013).

As for the TransCanada, their documents and records of previous spills approve the existence of serious problems related to preventing, discovering and stopping spills. Particularly,   University of Nebraska engineering professor John Stansbury insists that this company provides doubtful data. Though TransCanada predicts that the Keystone XL will have 11 major spills over 50 years, a more realistic calculation is 91 major spills in a space of time mentioned (Stansbury, 2011). Thus, one can notice that oil companies usually declare the safety and reliability of their pipelines.

There is still a way to promote a compromise between oil companies and the environmentalists. For that, they must demonstrate that they care deeply about the environment, and that they are investing significant amounts of company resources to reduce potential impacts. Since the biggest challenge for the pipeline’s construction is their safety, oil and gas companies should pay much attention to the industry’s safety standards. In fact, the direct environmental risks of pipelines are relatively low. Companies should establish acceptable levels of risk. Choosing a pipeline route that avoids vulnerable areas is a key factor. The other important factors are project design and construction specific to circumstances and compensation for habitat, if necessary. One should not underestimate the human factor within the pipelines issue. Oil and gas pipelines could be made safer if pipeline operators respond quickly to accidents. Human error plays an important role, for improper operation contribute to some of the pipeline ruptures.

The environmental impacts of pipelines cannot be avoided completely, only reduced to adequate levels. For the need of transmitting oil and gas is increasing, the question of pipelines alternatives is on the agenda. The main alternative to pipelines is trains. For instance, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association transports three million barrels of oil every day, with approximately 5,000 barrels shipped by rail (Williams, 2012). This tendency should alter in favor of the trains. Consequently, pipelines environment issues may be solved in the future.

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