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From Fossil To Fuel™
From Fossil To Fuel™

Episode 18 · 2 years ago

Episode 17 - Pipelines

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

What are pipelines and how do we prevent spills?

My name is Brennan McDougall and I'm a professional engineer. Or the last decade I've worked in many different facets of the oil and gas industry. While I have a pretty solid technical background in oil and gas, I don't really know a whole lot about the other non technical departments that help run an oiling gas company. Recently I took a course to help develop my business acumen and better understand how the financial side of the business works. What a novel concept to educate the technical people on the business and financial side. I thought it would be a really cool idea to return the favor and educate the non technical people on the technical side. This is how the concept from fossil the fuel was born. Through these twenty four episodes, we will take a journey from how oil and gas was formed millions of years ago how it is refined into the fuel that runs our cars and keeps our homes. Come join me on this adventure as we learn how the oiling gas industry operates from fossil to a pipelines...

...have been getting a pretty bad rap lately, and really for some time now, with spills being published all over the media. Things going on with LN g heavy oil in Canada. But the truth is pipelines are the life blood of the oil and gas industry. If you've never seen a map of all the pipelines in your area, go google it, especially if you're in an area like western Canada or the southwest us. It will look like the arteries in a human body. They're countless. In the US alone, there are over two point four million miles of energy pipelines. By comparison, there's only...

...a hundred and sixty four thousand miles of highway in the US, and this stat is probably several years old. So for every mile of highway there's fourteen point five miles of pipeline. At that numbers probably actually higher if you are able to calculate what it is as of today. The concept of pipelines has actually been around for Millennia, as ancient civilizations used basic plumbing systems to move podable water and see which waste. The Romans, for example, would be an obvious one that comes to mind. The first oil pipeline, though, was built in eighteen sixty two, shortly after the first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, and it it surprisingly enough, was made of wood. Since then, a lot has changed and pipelines seem to be one of those things that everyone knows about but very few know much about. So I not...

...only want to talk a little bit about the details about pipelines, but also why they're important. As usual, we won't delve too deep into this, but I'll mention the key points for both sides and you can come to your own conclusions. So let's start off with the basics. Pipelines are a cylindrical tube, typically composed of metal, and the type metal varies depending on what the pipeline is transporting in what its actual purposes. Much like the arteries and veins in your body, pipeline systems are meant to carry fluids from one point to another and act as some sort of distribution or transportation system. You'll have a few main pipelines that are bigger in size and can transport large volumes, and many, many smaller ones that tie into the bigger systems. As the fluids flow through pipelines, just as blood flows through your veins, it loses...

...pressure, so every once in a while it needs a little boost. That's what our heart is for and keeps the blood pumping. Gas Pipelines accomplish this using compressors or compressor stations, and oil pipelines will use pumps or pumps they is all along the way to keep the pressure up so that the oil and gas can get where it needs to go. These stations will also have measurement instrumentation to measure flow rates, pressure, temperature in any other relevant data. This data is then transmitted to a central control room where a group of people operate and control the entire pipeline system for a given area. It looks a lot like what you see for Nasa Mission Control in the movies, with high tech computers and tons of screens and the flashing lights. It's very similar, how the to look alike, and so the operators in this control room can...

...then remotely control the entire system from hundreds of miles away and if they see anything that looks suspicious they can shut that part of the system down automatically and dispatch a team to go investigate. To these types of systems that can help prevent or significantly limit any spills that could occur, because the oily gas flowing through pipelines can still have trace contaminants in it. All pipelines will start to have some sort of material build up on the inside of the pipe, much like plaque will form from cholesterol inside of our arteries, and much like the plot accord cholesterol inside or arteries, the build up in the pipelines is not a good thing either. Lucky for pipelines, there's an easy way to clean them, and this technique is referred to as picking. A pig is a...

...piece of material that's put into the pipeline at a certain point and uses the pipeline pressure behind it to push it along, and it's big enough so that, as its moving through the pipeline, it wipes and cleans the inside layers. Now we have something called smart pigs that have electronics and sensors built in to do inspections on the pipeline at the same time. So while you're cleaning it, you can also inspect your pipe, and this will help you understand what condition the pipe is in and therefore help prevent future spills. That's really it for the basics on pipelines, or at least what I want to cover today. So now that we've covered the basics, it's time to switch to the more interesting topic, the politics, or probably more appropriately, the geopolitics...

...of pipelines, and this is because pipelines cross borders, whether it's counties, states or countries, they become more than just a means for transportation. They can also become a key pond in political actions and interests. Two recent examples come to mind that will talk about to help showcase how pipelines can be very polarizing in the political realm. The Keystone Xel pipeline in North America and the Russia Ukraine gas disputes. So, for those of US in North America, if you haven't heard of it, was a company called Trans Canada, transcanted up proposed the Keystone Excel pipeline way back in two thousand and eight and it would run from the oil sands up in northern Alberta, Canada, all the way down to Nebraska and it could carry eight hundred and thirty thou barrels of oil per day. So this is a big pipeline. Because the proposed pipeline...

...crossed the Canada US border, it required presidential approval, American presidential approval, prior to the construction. So President Obama eventually did not approve it and the project has been in the media spotlight ever since as a major political controversy, because the source of oil for the pipeline is the oil sands and therefore represents a commitment to fossil fuels. Some viewed this decision to approve or refuse as a crucial decision regarding America's energy future. As Keystone Excel became hotter and more popular in the media debates, the pipeline became a polarizing topic for political discussions and debates, and it became more than just a pipeline. It represented energy policy in the sense of renewable energy versus fossil fuels, environmental impact, first...

...nation consultation, job creation, among many other things. Ultimately, it was given much more attention than it probably deserved, and President Obama himself even said in his speech announcing the rejection of the pipeline, and I'm quoting here. For years the keystone pipeline has occupied what I frankly consider an overinflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol, too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter, and all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster, proclaimed by others in quote. Even still, it goes to show the role that pipelines can play at a global level given the right circumstances. Even now, for those of us that are north of the border in Canada, understand...

...the consequences of pipeline decisions. We in Canada are always looking for outlets for our oil and pipelines are typically the major ones. And if we want to sell oil to the United States via pipeline, then we need to construct new pipelines that cross the border. If we are not able to build these pipelines, then you do not have as many outlets for the oil that you're producing. And if your oil production is increasing and the outlets for that volume of oil are not increasing, you've got a problem, because now the supply of oil is going up but your ability to export it is basically staying flat. So what do you do now? You have to look at other means. The biggest one, at least recently in the media, is transporting all of that oil by rail. Okay, so now what is that impact? Well,...

...the cost to transport by rail is generally more expensive than by pipeline, so the cost of the oil goes up. In addition to that, if your oil producers are paying a premium to transport our oil by rail, then everybody else who is transporting other commodities by rail, maybe it's grain, are now having to compete with the oil and gas companies who are paying a premium to use the trains that are transporting goods from one place to another, because there's a finite number of trains as well. So there's a ripple effect, depending on what your pipeline situation is, and you can start to see how it can become so polarizing, because it's not just the environmental impact or consequences of a potential pipeline, but it's the potential impact and consequences of everything else that has ties to it. I want to be careful not to go too...

...far down the rabbit hole here when it comes to the politics of pipelines, but I do think it's important that you understand that the politics of pipelines, or why pipelines are part of politics, goes beyond the actual pipeline itself. I hope you can see by now that the nature of pipelines, especially when their cross border, can impact a lot more than just the oil and gas industry, whether it's jobs, whether it's transporting oil by rail or the ripple effects of anything beyond that. Pipelines have the ability to impact a wide range of industries outside of oil and gas or wide range of people or communities because...

...of how far they go in the borders they cross, and so it becomes a really interesting topic to discuss and, like I said, I'm not going to go too deep here, but really just want to make sure that you understand that pipelines are important because they become geopolitical, meaning that they have the ability to impact more than one area or region. In two thousand and five, there was a dispute between Russia and Ukraine over the pricing of natural gas. In January two thousand and six, the dispute reached a climax where Russia actually cut off all natural gas supply through Ukraine. The dispute was settled three days later, but flared again in January two thousand and nine, resulting in eighteen European countries reporting significant or complete cutoff of natural gas supply from Russia through...

Ukraine. Russia is a massive producer of natural gas and one of the main suppliers to Europe, so this was a major crisis in Europe. The dispute continued on even after this round was settled, but it goes to show the impact that energy pipelines can have again when crossing borders. Energy, and specifically oil and gas, place such a major role in our society that in it inevitably becomes a core part of any political platform. We rely on oil and gas a lot more than we realize we do. A lot of us take for grant at the natural gas that constantly heats our homes in the fuel that keeps our vehicles running. These products, and many others, are readily available at our beckoning due to the integrated pipeline systems that are in place. While there are other alternatives to pipeline transportation, they only move a fraction of the...

...products that pipelines do. Pipelines truly have become the lifeline of our energy system. Hey guys, if you like today's episode, make sure you subscribe to the podcast. Unlike most podcasts that release an episode every week or two, I did all twenty four at once, Netflix style, so you can listen to them all right now if you just hit subscribe. If you like today's episode, make sure you leave me a comment or thumbs up, or you can email me at from fossil to fuel at GMAILCOM, or look me up on Linkedin. I'm Brendan McDougall.

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