Pipelines are useful in the transmission of liquid items from one location to another. You have this technology in your home because a pipe drain takes sewage away from your property to the wastewater treatment plant. Fresh water supplies are available at your faucet because a pipe brings water to your property – even if you have a well drilled to access this resource. We also use pipelines to move energy products, such as crude oil, in as efficient a manner as possible.
There are some pipelines that are incredible feats of engineering because of their size, length, and processing capability. The global oil and gas energy have some of the longest ones operating that have ever been created. The West-East Gas Pipeline stretches for over 8,700 kilometers, with PetroChina owning a 72% interest in the project. There is a main trunk line and eight branches to it.
In comparison, the Keystone XL pipeline that generates controversy because of its placement is planned to be 1,897 kilometers upon completion. It would transport up to 830,000 barrels of oil each day for processing.
List of the Pros of Pipelines
1. Oil pipelines help to create thousands of jobs wherever they are built.
Democrat Joe Manchin stated his support for the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015 when the project was coming up for a vote. He said that he was “encouraged” that it would come to the Senate floor as one of the first options of legislation in the 114th Congress. “We have everything to gain by building this pipeline,” he said, “especially since it would help create thousands of jobs right here at home [West Virginia].”
Even states that don’t have pipelines constructed for major oil movement can benefit from the impact of this structure. We have fuel, plastics, and numerous other products because of how effectively pipelines transport crude to a refinery.
2. Pipelines provide significant contributions to the economy.
Using the Keystone XL pipeline as an example of this benefit, an estimated $3 billion will be added to the American economy when this project is complete. It would create a similar amount of revenue each year in Canada as well. That means the value of the products transported by the pipeline will go up because there are fewer losses experienced due to the mechanisms of other transportation methods.
Although pipelines can and do leak at times, the overall benefits to the economy and general lack of environmental impacts make it a win/win situation for most communities to consider.
3. It allows for workers to tap into distant resources without significant capital.
When there is a pipeline available to transport natural gas, crude oil, or even water, then a complete infrastructure is no longer necessary to access the resources. That means we can access new areas in the arctic where energy could be widely available without the need for roads, tankers, or other equipment that could cause leaks in vulnerable areas. Many of the pipelines are underground as well, which prevents further problems from occurring on the surface if a leak does occur for some reason.
4. Pipelines support every industry.
The United States doesn’t have the longest pipelines in the world, but it is home to the largest network of them. There are over 207,000 miles of liquids pipelines in operation at any time. That’s in addition to over 300,000 miles of gas transmission pipelines and 2.1 million miles of gas distribution pipelines. These materials are efficiently transported in safe, economical ways to ensure that everyone has the raw materials needed to continue their productivity. This system helps to move items from ports or production areas throughout North America to support population centers of all sizes.
5. This technology has a significantly high safety rate.
Although there are some high profile leaks that have occurred with pipelines over the past decade, it is essential to remember that this technology has a 99.999% success rate in the realm of safety. The number of crude oil releases from pipelines that were greater than 500 barrels is down by 32% since 2011. Most of the incidents that do occur don’t impact the general public either, with 71% of reported incidents wholly contained with the operation facility where it occurred.
Pipeline operators are also prepared for the unlikely event of an incident by using control room tech that can stop the flow of liquids instantly. There are emergency response plans, resource deployment procedures, and frequent communication with first responders to ensure that any adverse impact is limited.
6. The amount of emissions released by pipelines is negligible.
The worst contributors to greenhouse gas emissions are not pipelines, but farmers. Up to 20% of the carbon and methane that goes into the atmosphere each year comes from the agricultural sector. The United States saw 5.5 billion tons of carbon from pipelines, but the food system that we use is responsible for up to 6.5 billion tons as a net calculation. That means our land use needs create more of a problem than the energy resources we access through the use of this technology.
The February 2019 EPA estimates on greenhouse gas emissions show that the United States reached the lowest levels in 25 years for this measurement, down 0.3% from 2016 levels. That still makes it a significantly greater contributor than what pipelines offer. If you took the Keystone XL pipeline on its own, the net contribution would be about 19 million tons per year.
7. Pipelines are safer than other transportation methods.
Many of the energy products that we use every day can be transported through other methods, such as train or trailer transport. When you compare the safety rate for pipelines to what these other methods are, there is no comparison. The failure rate of trains can be as much as ten percentage points higher than a pipeline, and trailer transports (including shipping) can be over twenty percentage points higher.
When you consider the energy development resources that occur because of pipeline technologies, the benefits often outweigh any of the disadvantages that can occur if there is a failure that happens for some reason.
List of the Cons of Pipelines
1. Pipelines might contribute to climate change.
When Bernie Sanders announced his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, he did so because of the threat that using crude oil products causes to the planet. “At a time when the scientific community is virtually unanimous in telling us that climate change is real, that it is caused by human activity and carbon emissions, and that it is already causing devastating problems in the United States… it is absolutely imperative for the future wellbeing of this country that we listen to the scientists and we begin the path forward to break our dependence on fossil fuel.
2. We use pipelines to transport dangerous fossil fuels.
Canada uses pipelines to transport bitumen, which is what oil that comes from tar sands is called. The petroleum in this product is mixed with sand, clay, and water so that it forms a thick sludge. We can only remove this fossil fuel from the ground through strip mining or using steam to release the liquid. Both options increase the risk of local toxic runoff, and then there is the added risk of a leak occurring during the transportation process.
Even if the natural gas or crude oil transition is successful without leaking, the material is exceptionally flammable. It wouldn’t take much of a malfunction to ignite a string of tragic events. When a series of explosions rocked Massachusetts, destroying 80 homes and causing 8,600 customer evacuations, the pressure in the pipe was 12 times what it normally should have been.
3. Many of the employment opportunities for pipelines are temporary.
There is a surge in construction employment at the start of a pipeline project, but that typically stops once the work is complete. Some exceptions to this disadvantage do exist, especially when the pipeline is more than 3,000 kilometers in length. What the local economy has left are the maintenance and repair positions that get stationed up and down the line. Some projects might offer high-paying positions for several years, but that work eventually goes away. Households must keep moving to the next pipeline project to stay employed, which means it becomes a challenge to put down roots somewhere.
4. Most pipeline jobs pay the minimum wage for the state in which they are located.
It is not unusual for general laborers on a pipeline project to earn the minimum wage for the work. 40% of the employment opportunities at fuel stations supported by this technology fall into this category. Even when you use specialist labor from union positions, the contracts are typically temporary. That means many of the economic advantages which are possible with pipelines are minimal and transitory. It is not unusual for workers to look for a side hustle or a second job to manage their finances effectively, even though the work might require extended stays away from home.
5. Pipelines are not an emissions-free technology.
When we transport items through a pipeline, then we can reduce the number of emissions that are other transportation methods contribute to the atmosphere. It would be incorrect to classify this option as something that is free of greenhouse gases because we must still manufacture and install the components. The consumption of energy materials through the pipelines adds to the potential warming effect as well.
The issue of environmental impact must be taken into consideration because it has the power to reduce the GDP of the United States by 2% each year. The economic gains from this technology must outweigh the losses we experience in other areas.
6. Many liquids are corrosive when they pass through a pipeline.
Tar sands oil is highly corrosive, causing a premature breakdown of a pipeline when compared to other fluids. That means we must continually repair and upgrade the components to prevent leaks from occurring. This nature of the products we transport with this method can impact local air quality levels as well, even if the item is underground.
Natural gas and water are corrosive to pipes as well. That’s why you must periodically repair or upgrade your home’s plumbing features.
7. Leaks from a pipeline can cause a massive amount of devastation.
Although there is a high safety rate for pipeline technologies, we cannot ignore the fact that there are incidents that occur each year that can damage the environment. The safety record in the United States is one that offers a trouble history that includes contamination, injuries, and death. Since 1986, accidents have spilled an average of 76,000 barrels per year, which is more than 3 million gallons. That means an average of 200 barrels, or 40% of a “serious incident,” are spilled every day in the United States.
The reasons for an incident are varied, but 24% of the time a leak occurs because of excavation damage. Another 18% of the primary causes are directly attributed to corrosion. 17% of leaks are caused by an equipment, weld, or material failure. The vast majority of the incidents have occurred in California and Texas as well – the two states with the longest history of oil and gas development.
8. The energy sector is responsible for 84% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Do pipelines contribute a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the environment? Not usually. It is the energy that we use after transporting products through them that create the most significant impacts. Agriculture is responsible for 10% of the inventory sector emissions as of 2017 figures compared to what our energy sector contributes. When you look at the economic sectors for greenhouse gas emissions, transportation is 28%, electricity generation is 27.5%, and industrial applications are 22% of our emissions, but agriculture is just 9%.
That’s why each key point from proponents and critics of pipelines must be evaluated in a neutral way. The numbers can be easily manipulated to make key points that may not always be viable.
9. Sustainable and renewable energy provides more jobs than pipelines.
It is true that pipelines do create jobs in the communities where a base of operations exists. What some people may not realize is that there could be four times the number of jobs created by embracing concepts like the New Green Deal, short-term renewables, or sustainable biomass. When the pipeline industry creates 40,000 jobs, then Political Economy Research Institute estimates that 160,000 positions become available in an alternative energy industry like solar or wind. That means the billions of dollars in investments could make a more powerful impact by looking beyond the typical resources we use each day.
10. It is not a flexible technology.
Pipelines rely on a rigid infrastructure to safely transport items from one location to another. Once the outline for the project is approved, there is no flexibility in the installation of the technology. You can only use it for a few fixed points, which means trying to move around existing options can be challenging. If you must traverse a wooded hillside, then you generally need to clear the area before proceeding with the work. This disadvantage also means that the capacity of the pipeline cannot be increased once it is laid and installed. Your two ends are fixed, so the only way to make changes is to alter the overall design of the structure.
11. It can be challenging to repair some pipelines.
One of the reasons why pipelines are kept above ground, despite the disadvantages of that installation method, is because it is easier to work on them should maintenance needs occur. When pipes are buried underground, then it can be challenging to detect if a leak exists. You also have a higher risk of damage to the pipes themselves because you must dig out the dirt around them to finish the necessary repair. This process tends to be very expensive, especially if there is existing infrastructure in place. Some projects cost over $200,000 per mile in the United States to lay new pipeline – and even then, it can get in the way of your future development or transportation needs.
12. There can be problems providing enough security for the pipeline.
The Keystone XL pipeline presents some severe security challenges since it covers almost 2,000 kilometers of distance. There is no way that one single jurisdiction can cover all of the ground in case someone wanted to blow it up for some reason. Developers rely on the local governments and community law enforcement to provide adequate security to prevent damage. That’s why this option is usually treated as a soft target when planning for terrorism events. Between 2011-2016, there were 1,480 incidents of terrorism against oil and gas facilities, which was a 387% increase from the data collected 20 years ago. The University of Maryland has recorded over 170,000 separate episodes since they began tracking the information in 1980.
Although only 1.7% of these attempts are targeting utilities, refineries, and pipelines currently, that percentage has fluctuated dramatically over the years.
Verdict on the Pros and Cons of Pipelines
Pipelines are an essential component of modern life. We rely on them for many conveniences. When they are created and installed correctly, then this technology can prevent disease, distribute water, and provide us with the energy we require.
The key to unlocking the benefits of this technology is to install it according to international code. When the work is done correctly, then the risks of an adverse event decline immensely. That’s why the safety rate of a pipeline is well above 99%.
At the same time, we must consider the worst-case scenario when looking at the pros and cons of pipelines. The worst leak in history when using this technology was the Persian Gulf War Oil Spill that released hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the northern waters of the gulf as a way to prevent amphibious troops from landing. The Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 killed 11, injured 17, and released 134 million gallons of oil.
Fines and other forms of responsibility can help to repair the damage that happens, but it may not resolve the environmental issues that occur. That’s why we must tread carefully when approving and installing new projects.