Abandoned Oil Pipelines What Lurks Below?

These photos were taken July 2012 in the historic Turner Valley, Alberta
B. McPherson

Controversy over new oil pipelines is reaching boiling point in many circles. Heated debate is taking place over the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway and Keystone Pipeline proposals. Safety, disruption to landowners  and more are being weighed against the money to be made transporting and selling petroleum products. It got me thinking about the old pipelines. What happens to a pipeline when it is too old to use or not needed?

It’s a bit of an Alice in Wonderland scene. The US laws and regulations are different from ours in Canada. The Pipeline and Gas Journal is a source of information about abandoned pipelines in Texas. Apparently a pipeline in Texas may be abandoned by a company, but it still retains ownership and may choose to reactivate the line at a later date. In the meantime, the right of way or easement is no longer maintained, but the through which the pipe extends is not free to dig it up or build on top of it.

Abandoning a pipeline, but retaining ownership allows the oil transport company to avoid expenses and liabilities. The following points were copied from the Pipeline and Gas Journal, Oct 2009

* Possible environmental problems,
 * Possible opportunity for future use,
 * No company policy regarding this kind of property,
 * Ignorance of potential profits, and
 * Ignorance of potential liabilities.  Pipeline and Gas Journal, Oct. 2009

In Canada an oil company must apply to the National Energy Board to abandon a pipeline. There are considerations as to whether to leave the line in the ground or to remove it. The Energy Board has the final say as to the disposition of the asset(or liability). In Canada, a pipeline may not be reactivated without the permission of the Board.

OK so the pipeline is abandoned and left in place. Is it cleaned? The recent spill into the Red Deer River in Alberta was from an unused(abandoned) pipeline. It fouled a large area of the river and rendered a lake unusable for recreation and threatened the drinking water of the town of Red Deer.

According to the National Energy Board of Canada(NEB) there are 700 000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines in Canada. I could not find figures for the extent of abandoned pipes. As a field is pumped out and left, often the pipes are also left. Eventually those metal pipes will corrode, spilling the residues into the adjoining landscape. Also the empty tubes may serve as water conduits moving water along with hydrocarbon residues to unexpected places.

People in Canada cannot legally stop a Big Oil company from trenching across their land to lay pipelines. The best they can do is to negotiate a pathway that keeps the high pressure lines away from houses and buildings. Oil pipelines are buried an average of one to two metres(3 to 6 ft.) under the soil. If their property is poisoned by leaking pipes, ask them how much Big Oil has benefited them.

Pipelines leak, sometimes early, sometimes late, but they will leak and poison the environment.

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