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Can Pipeline Construction be Eco-Friendly?

Cranberry Swamp Natural Area with eco-friendly pipeline ROW. Image by Nicholas A. Tonelli, CC BY 2.0

Many industries are striving to become more eco-friendly.  Large tech companies are adding solar panels to their buildings, local governments are using renewable natural gas trucks, and even the farm industry is recycling manure to create electricity.

So what about the pipeline industry?  Is there such a thing as eco-friendly pipeline construction?  If you’re familiar with the industry, you know that when compared with rail and truck transportation, pipelines are eco-friendly and it has been for quite some time.

Pipeline construction projects reduce carbon footprints, preserve local ecosystems, reduce the chances of spills, and reduce future energy consumption for years to come.  On top of this, pipeline construction companies can take advantage of certain construction methods to make the project even more environmentally friendly.  Let’s take a look at each of these factors in more detail.

The Carbon Footprint of Gas Pipelines

Studies out of the University of Alberta have shown that using pipelines to transport gas and oil over railroads results in up to a 77 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  This is significant because railroads are usually the second most environmentally friendly way in which oil and gas can be transported overland.  Transporting oil by truck has an even larger impact on the environment.

There are two main reasons for this.  Firstly, trains and trucks produce air pollution as they operate.  Tanker trucks and railways will use large diesel engines to propel themselves while pipelines simply use the natural gas to power the compressor stations that move the gas to its final destination.

The second reason is that trucks and trains are far less efficient than pipelines.  For example, Forbes.com reports that a rail tank car carries about 30,000 gallons.  This means that a train consisting of 100 cars will still only carry about 3 million gallons.  It can take several days to reach its final destination and once it does, it will drive back empty.

A tanker truck is even worse.  According to Transcourt Tank Leasing, a small tanker might only carry 3,000 gallons while a large tanker will only carry a maximum of 11,600 gallons.  These tankers might also take several days to reach their destination and they’ll drive back empty as well.

These numbers are in stark contrast to what a pipeline can do.  An oil pipeline can send over 35 million gallons of oil across the country in a single day and it can continue to do so without interruption.

Gladly, in the United States, 100% of our natural gas and 70% of our oil is already transported by pipeline.  This has kept the carbon footprint of our oil and gas industry much lower than it would be otherwise.

Preserving Our Ecosystem

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Route of pipeline in Wyre Forest / P L Chadwick, CC BY 2.0

The PHMSA, the EPA, as well as state and local environmental protection agencies all work together with oil and gas pipeline companies to help preserve our nation’s ecosystem.  They do this by helping pipeline companies identify, avoid, and protect sensitive areas.  Oftentimes, the additional protection that the oil and gas pipelines provide to these sensitive ecosystems helps to ensure that plant and animal life flourish when they would not have otherwise.

The reason for this is that pipelines end up creating ecological buffers around sensitive ecosystems.  They do this by safeguarding the land around these ecosystems, as well as by building watersheds and slip prevention features into the area.  This helps to protect areas such as breeding and hibernation habitats and natural wetland areas.

On top of this, pipeline companies often create new habitats for animals to reside in.  For example, a pipeline might create a watershed to help protect an area from flooding.  When creating this watershed, they’ll add native plants to the watershed as well as the surrounding areas.  These native plants attract local insects, birds, and other animals.  Over time, a new ecosystem is born.

Furthermore, this new watershed helps to protect other ecosystems and bodies of water in the area.  This creates a chain of events that can only benefit the local ecosystems as well as the environment in general.

Pipeline Right-Of-Way Restoration

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Pipeline ROW Restoration in Detweiler Run Natural Area, Image by Nicholas A. Tonelli, CC BY 2.0

Even the areas above and around a pipeline’s ROW often end up better than they were before the pipeline is installed.  There are a few reasons for this.  For starters, the soil is aerated which leads to the prolific growth of the vegetation that is planted during restoration.

Also, the plants that are planted are all native plants.  This means that invasive plant species are removed and replaced with native plants that flourish in the area they’re planted in.  ROW restoration experts will take steps to ensure that they plant the right plants in the right quantities to help keep everything in balance.  This attracts native insects and animals and increases the chances that invasive species will not be able to re-root themselves in the area.

Pipeline ROWs also benefit from the fact that they are carefully maintained afterward.  The tracts of land that may have been completely unmanaged beforehand now have the benefit of professional landscapers, ROW experts, and government oversight to help keep them safe and ecologically sound.

Regular pruning and brush clearing can even help to keep the number of forest fires in the area down.  Forest fires can cause a significant amount of damage to the environment.  NASA found that a large forest fire in the Alaskan wilderness in 2004 sent pollutants all the way into Europe.

Leaks and Spills

Pipelines can transport oil and gas much more safely than trains, tankers, and trucks.  In fact, according to iaee.org, the 2016 incident rates for oil transported by rail were 155 major spills per billion barrels shipped. By pipeline, it was only 12.

The main reason for these numbers is simple: pipelines are buried underground.  This provides it with natural protection from transportation accidents as well as detrimental weather conditions.  Trucks and trains do not have these advantages.

On top of this, pipelines are easier to manage, monitor, and repair.  A leaking pipeline can be shut down as soon as the leak is detected.  This is not the case with a truck or a train.  An overturned truck or railcar is not always easy to contain and it can quickly create a safety hazard for everyone in the vicinity of the accident.

Additional Eco-Friendly Construction Methods

While pipeline construction is already inherently eco-friendly, there are a few other factors that can make it even friendlier to the environment.

Although transporting oil and gas via pipeline requires much less energy than by truck or rail, there is still an energy requirement.  Using solar and wind as auxiliary energy sources for pipeline transportation further reduces the carbon footprint in transporting the fuels.

There is an energy source that is even more eco-friendly than renewable energy.  This energy source is known as passive energy.  An example of passive energy in the pipeline construction industry might be a pipe fabrication plant installing large skylights throughout their facility.  The skylights would help to provide natural light so less energy would be used in lighting the facility.

Another example might be found on the pipeline itself.  For instance, the welding shacks that are brought onsite could have windows built into them to provide natural light inside of them as well.  This could help to eliminate the need to put lights inside the shacks altogether.

Final Thoughts

The oil and gas pipeline industry has been an eco-friendly industry since its inception.  Over the years, it has evolved to become even more environmentally friendly and will only continue to do so in the years to come.

As part of our core values, Hanging H is dedicated to being environmentally responsible.  Our mission is to protect the environment and preserve the ecosystems we all depend on.  As technology advances, we will continue to be an industry leader in further reducing our carbon footprint and making our pipeline construction even more eco-friendly.

November 7, 2019

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