Furnishing Fuel: Can We Expand Our Pipelines Safely?



Recently pipelines have been regularly showcased in the news; however, barely any of this coverage highlights the incredible innovations that have been made to safety and quality assurance since America started building its pipeline infrastructure 100+ years ago.  Unfortunately, the main message has indicated that pipelines are a threat to the environment when actually they are the safest and most efficient means of moving those volatile liquids and gases that we all use on a daily basis. Thus, whenever there is a debate over greater energy exploration, proponents inevitably propose expanding the pipeline network.


Pipeline expansions are necessary to our quality of life and increased energy demand, but how do we as an industry do our best to make sure these pipeline expansions are built and maintained in the safest way with the least possible disturbance to our environment? Though pipelines are indeed the safest means of transportation, the extension of the pipeline infrastructure, in addition to the advanced age of pipelines that are still in operation, present some environmental risks and challenges to operators.

Compliance is key. It’s not just about meeting mandatory minimums – the focus must be on integrating and following a robust integrity management plan with a focus on safety and efficiency. By adhering to the company’s best management practices as well as complying with regulatory pipeline inspections and engaging a proactive risk assessment plan we can keep this network safe as it grows. But first, let’s take a look at its current state.


The United States is home to the world’s largest network of energy pipelines. The current network contains more than 2.4 million miles of fuel pipes. 72,000 miles of these pipes are used to transport crude oil, while most of the rest is used for refined oil or natural gas. These lines are disproportionately located in Texas, Louisiana, and the Midwest, with other networks extending into California, the Northwest, and the Southeast. Individual pipelines range from less than a mile in length to more than 1,000 miles.

As large as this infrastructure is, it is largely invisible to the public. While pump stations and other vital components are located on the surface, most of the pipes themselves run underground. These pipes extend through most cities and sizable portions of rural areas. If your house or apartment uses natural gas heating, you likely have some under the nearby street or even beneath your building.

Any discussion of expanding America’s oil pipeline network should lead to strategic pipeline routing, thus recognizing just how long and widespread the existing lines are, and how directly they impact our safety and energy use on a daily basis. Especially with the proposed PHMSA safety regulations for natural gas transmission pipelines related to high-consequence and moderate consequence areas.


Given how large the pipeline network is, keeping those lines safe is of critical importance. Even the slightest safety issues could put homes, neighborhoods, or even entire cities at risk; along with threatening the natural environment. Our aging infrastructure, especially with respect to extreme weather events like hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise and wildfires, can also pose many challenges to pipeline operators. However, many developments have been created to answer complex issues associated with pipeline operation and maintenance.

If a pipeline spill does occur, operators are able to contain them before they cause serious human or environmental damage, and can utilize incident response services to prevent issues from occurring in the future. 71 percent of large spills never make it outside of the operator’s facility.

Older pipelines are often associated with the risk of more severe incidents due to the fact that many were not subject to modern regulations when they were built. In order to maintain safety and compliance regulation in historical lines, operators can leverage services from third-party organizations, such as pipeline safety management systems and regulatory and strategic consulting services.

Newer lines tend to use better containment and monitoring technology, but many of them could be carrying more hazardous fuels, increasing the risk of corrosion and other causes of pipeline failure. Certain risk and integrity management solutions, such as corrosion inspection management and leak survey and inspection, can help monitor pipeline integrity and ensure they comply with safety regulation.


None of this is to say that the current pipeline network necessarily should not be expanded. If the demand for natural gas and oil continues to rise, there must be some way to transport those fuels, and pipelines remain the safest option. But it does mean that our capacity to inspect and protect pipelines must expand in tandem. By developing and accessing modern technologies, such as innovative operations and field management applications that can detect and remedy inefficiencies. For more information on the future of pipeline GIS, inspection, and risk assessment, contact G2 Integrated Solutions today.