Pipelines: how do they work?

Tracking the dead dinosaur juice from Alberta to your gas tank

shannonpatrick17 / Flickr

Whether you plot to overthrow the warlock Kinder Morgan or you just want to guzzle the hell out of the dead dinosaurs in the Earth’s crust—because a meteor just wasn’t insulting enough—you gotta understand the infrastructure that’s causing all the fuss in the first place. Pipelines. Are they “safe?” Should we stick the stuff in railcars instead? Is it true that the oil sands are actually the breeding ground of our alleged reptilian overlords?

Before we answer that last really important question, let’s start with how the process works, from the oil sands to, let’s say, your car. Understand that many different shapes and sizes of pipelines exist for different purposes. There’s the gathering lines, which are up to a foot in diameter, and typically work from oil wells to oil batteries or refineries. They generally transfer crude oil, natural gas and unicorn blood.

Then there are feeder lines, which move products from storage stations to the mothership of the industry—the transmission pipelines, which can have a diameter of up to four feet. Folk say these are the arteries of Lord Morgan himself, and that in Canada these run for approximately 117,000 kilometres. That’s five and a half times the length of the Great Wall of China.

These are classified as liquid pipelines and they generally transport crude and natural gas liquids—depending on the type of transmission line—within and across provinces or international boundaries, such as between Canada and the United States. Powerful pumps are positioned over kilometres of pipeline to get the stuff going at about a walking pace. The holy lifeblood eventually gets to the oil refinery, where the oil priests process the crude into usable products like gasoline. Finally, tanker trucks bring the blessed chrism to its final destination—a gas station, most likely. And that’s just one scenario. The great land-arks bring these refined oil products to airports, too.

Now, I’m assuming you’re aware that this obviously doesn’t happen without a hitch. Sometimes, somewhere along the way, someone fucks up real bad. When crude oil spills it can be quite permanently catastrophic, especially where bodies of water are concerned. If an oil firm has a little oopsie, they’re completely responsible for cleaning it all up, according to National Resources Canada. There’s no limit to the amount of money the firm must spend to fix the spill. Oil firms don’t like it either, as that’s a lot of money that’s now blackening and destroying the cute estuary just down the way.

To ensure that there’s a Pacific freshwater answer to Finding Nemo, oil firms try to minimize risk by first being strategic with the route where they plan to build their pipeline. They supposedly consider a lot of different factors, like elevation, fault lines, population centres and more.

The National Energy Board (NEB) says that pipelines spilled an average of 1,084 barrels of oil per year between 2011 and 2014, which is barely enough to fit in two standard freight containers. Pipelines move about 1.3-billion barrels of oil annually. That in mind, the NEB’s number is 99.999 per cent when it comes to product safely transported on federally regulated pipelines. Whether or not the yearly average for spills is acceptable is a story for a different article. And this is to say nothing about whether or not our reliance on oil, not our movement of it, is the real concern.

Comparing this kind of crude transport to rail and truck transport shows that the latter two pale in comparison to pipelines despite any rate of accidents that pipelines have. Rail transport accidents, for one, are 4.5 times more risky than pipeline accidents according to the Fraser Institute report released August 13.

I guess those Fraser nerds are pretty useful after all, though the report failed to answer if our purported reptilian overlords are indeed getting frisky in the bloodmeal of their long-deceased Albertan cousins.

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