Pipelines: Ancient Water Transport Solution Becomes Modern Political Quagmire
As we watch the global media feeds in early March, the images of the Russian Army streaming into Ukraine have elicited the collective feelings of horror, sympathy and anxiety.
The primary drivers for this conflict, slowly emerging from the fog of war, appear to be the westward pull of Ukraine into the post-WW2 nuclear treaty alliances pitted against the Russian autocratic desire for a strategic reunification of the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Underneath the geopolitical rationale for this sovereign territory incursion, a second less tangible front is likely to emerge if the fighting continues: the retaliatory energy war. As Western nations announce a battery of financial and trade-based sanctions in an attempt to isolate and bankrupt Russia, we should all be wary of the Russian counteroffensive. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that Russia is a petrostate and supplies roughly 30-40 percent of Europe’s energy imports. Most of this imported energy from Russia to Europe is in the form of oil and petroleum products, natural gas (including the liquified form), and a much smaller amount of thermal and metallurgical coal. The majority of these imports is supplied by pipelines, really big pipelines, running from the Russian oil and gas fields in the Ural Mountains and Yamal Peninsula, through Ukraine and Belarus, and then on to continental Europe.
The Russian Pipeline System
At the center of the Russian Pipeline System (RPS) are four main pipelines, three of which happen to run through Ukraine (Figure 1). Details of each system are the following:
- Druzhba (translates as “Friendship”), Liquid/Oil, about 2500 miles, 40-inch diameter, built in mid-1960s, 1.3 million barrels per day (pbd), operated by Transneft.
- Brotherhood, Gas/Natural Gas, about 2600 miles, 56-inch diameter, built in early-1980s, 30 billion cubic meters per year, operated by Gazprom.
- Yamal-Trans-Siberian, Gas/Natural Gas, about 2500 miles, 56-inch diameter, built in mid-1990s, 30-35 billion cubic meters per year, operated by Gazprom.
- Nord Stream 1, Gas/Natural Gas, 760 miles, 56-inch diameter, built in early-2010s, 55 million cubic meters per year, operated largely by Gazprom.
These are the four femoral arteries of the Russian energy complex, the oil side delivering about half of the oil to the doorstep of Eastern Europe’s refineries and the gas side delivering roughly 15 percent of Europe’s total natural gas consumption per year, that becomes a much higher percentage the further east you travel.
An interesting detail about the RPS is the Nord Stream pipeline: since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian pipelines running through Ukraine and Belarus have been a constant source of friction, as those two countries charge Russia transport fees for use of its pipelines through their land.
The Nord Stream 2 system, completed in September 2021, was originally envisioned as a solution to this issue, as the pipeline is buried deep below the Baltic Sea, thus bypassing these two countries and still allowing Russia to maintain its dominant energy position in Europe.
The opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has come primarily from the U.S. and the Eastern European countries, which derive transport fees from the existing and older pipelines in mainland Europe. The blocking and objection to the second Nord Stream pipeline is likely to have adjusted the Russian strategic thinking on the value of the existing pipelines laid across Ukraine and Belarus, and may be a driving factor behind the current military incursion. One of the many tragedies of this conflict is that no amount of trade rerouting can fully replace the lost flow of hydrocarbons if Russia decides to close the pipes. If the conflict continues, it will result in acute energy shortages and material economic contraction throughout Europe—and higher energy prices globally.
The current Russia-Ukraine conflict being a case in point, everywhere we look, hydrocarbon pipelines appear to have developed an odd form of pariah syndrome. From the Brotherhood and Friendship pipelines in Eastern Europe, to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea, and closer to home in the Americas, the Keystone XL pipeline, and a host of natural gas pipelines being proposed throughout the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, pipelines appear to be at the center of major political and even armed conflicts throughout the world. The question we should be asking is why? How did a basic piece of societal infrastructure become such a quagmire of contention?
Pipelines From Ancient Times
Pipelines and their ancestral cousin, the aqueduct, have been a component of human civilization since at least 3,000 BCE. Originally developed by the Egyptians for irrigation purposes, they were constructed of clay, stone, wood, masonry, copper, tin and lead. The aqueducts and pipelines of the ancient world provided a key interconnection to bridge the disparate forces of supply and demand, specifically as it pertained to water. The supply of water existed in mountain lakes and other high-altitude reservoirs from glacial melt, with high demand for water in population and farming centers located at lower altitudes. Aqueducts and pipelines acted as the arbitrage closing mechanism that allowed supply to be conveyed to the place of demand.
Although the Egyptians are credited with the first known usage of pipes and pipelines, the undisputed pipeline masters of the ancient world were the Romans—the engineers of antiquity. Over the eight-hundred-year span of the Roman era, they built thousands of aqueducts to deliver water to their exploding population, some even comparable to modern capacity in terms of scale. The longest Roman aqueduct stretched two hundred miles to deliver water from the Turkish highlands to Constantinople; the largest system of twelve aqueducts delivered fifty million gallons of water a day to the capital city of Rome. This works out to roughly seventy million cubic meters of water annually or about the liquid capacity of Russia’s Druzhba–Friendship pipeline.
In a rather ignominious irony, Rome’s mastery of all things plumbing is often remembered for two unintended and distinctly negative consequences. The first is their extensive use of lead in their small pipeline projects, namely indoor plumbing and to coat cooking vessels, which resulted in a form of society-wide lead poisoning which may have indirectly contributed to the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire. The second consequence was that a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the aqueducts that they built across Europe began to fail as well, degrading the quality of public sanitation throughout Europe and providing a fertile breeding ground for disease. Outbreaks of the bubonic plague occurred shortly thereafter. That is not to say that derelict thousand-year-old aqueducts caused the “Black Death.” However, this did result in a reduction in public water quality, providing an environment for the spread of the disease.
Through the Dark Ages and medieval period, large public works projects, excluding castles and churches, were not a priority, so pipelines and aqueducts remained a vestige of a previous era—until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent boom in raw materials extraction and increasing population density in urban centers. Pipelines became increasingly important in public sanitation to provide water for urban communities and also to remove human waste through city sanitation. Much of this technology is as old as civilization itself.
As Europe, and England in particular, began digging deeper into the earth, the use of pipelines took on a new life, allowing miners to pump water out of their subterranean holes. With the digging came danger and opportunity as English miners quickly discovered that where there is coal, there is also coal bed gas, primarily methane. When mass-steel production entered the picture by the late 1700s, more gas was produced as a by-product of the coking ovens used in raw steel fabrication. The combination of surplus gas production and pipeworks quickly evolved into an entirely new business of residential/commercial heating and illumination using this coalbed, coking oven, or what was sometimes referred to colloquially as “town gas.”
By the 1850s, thousands of gasworks had sprung up across England, Germany and the U.S., providing distributed heat and illumination at an estimated cost of 50 percent below the most viable existing alternative, whale oil lamps and wax candles—in fact, the cost of whale oil was accelerating upwards as the sperm whale population was driven close to extinction in the North Atlantic.
One interesting by-product of the town gas boom was that it allowed factories to stay open longer and provided cheap illumination for nighttime reading, both of which helped to power the second phase of the Industrial Revolution and contributed to growing literacy rates in the developing world at the time.
These changes also greatly contributed to the development of modern pipeline technology and erection techniques as pipelines were used to collect the gas and distribute it across cities and homes. Pipes once again served their ancient function of connecting the place of production to the place of consumption.
Pipelines For Oil
In 1859, a seismic event occurred that ultimately changed the primary use of pipelines from water to energy. The world’s first commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania by Colonel Edwin Drake. As the oil began to flow in central Pennsylvania, the age-old problem emerged—the point of production was at a distance from the point of manufacturing and ultimately consumption. In the early days of the oil industry, physical barrels of oil were filled, loaded onto horse-drawn wagons, carried to the nearest railroad depot or river, and moved to the refineries by barge or train. In this process, the average volume of oil that was lost to spillage was approximately eight gallons per standard fifty-gallon imperial barrel, from the production site to market. Since losing 15 percent of your production in the transportation to market is an expensive loss-making exercise, a new solution was required.
Slowly but surely, pipeline experiments began in the Pennsylvania oil fields, but over short distances of one to two miles and with small-bore screwed pipes (one to two inches in diameter) used for gathering purposes. The pipelines created new opportunities to move oil more efficiently and with fewer leaks. The use of pipes immediately created a territorial dispute between the pipeline people, the barrel makers and the teamsters, who up until that point had been in control of moving the oil from the Pennsylvania fields.
After a series of sabotage attacks by the teamsters that required intervention from the local national guard, pipeline usage in the early Pennsylvania oil fields took off on the basis of economics. At a time when teamster gangs were charging upwards of five dollars per barrel to transport oil away from the wells, pipelines could achieve the same work for one dollar per barrel and at a fractional leakage rate of less than one gallon per barrel of oil moved.
Next, the web of this new pipeline technology began to spread out away from the Appalachian oil fields, first to Pittsburgh, then to Cleveland and Buffalo, and by 1875, three hundred miles eastward connecting the Pennsylvania fields to refineries in Philadelphia and Bayonne, New Jersey.
From there, as they say, the rest is all details, but to put things in context, by 1905 enough six- and eight-inch steel and cast-iron pipe had been laid in the U.S. to encircle the world twice. Today, there are some two million miles of oil and gas pipelines in operation in just the U.S. alone (see Figure 2), enough pipe to get to the moon and back four times. Similarly, large energy-based pipeline systems are in operation in Canada, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China.
The ubiquitous usage of pipelines to transport oil and gas today really boils down to a series of straightforward engineering, economic, safety and environmental factors. Those factors, detailed below, include the following:
- The places of oil and gas production in the U.S. tend to be concentrated in the interior, while the places of processing are concentrated on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and the higher places of consumption are on the U.S. Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Pipeline connects all of these supply-demand mismatches to allow the system to operate. This is consistent with the other major pipeline-system countries.
- As in the beginning of the oil industry, pipelines remain the cheapest form of liquids transportation when compared to the alternative of rail or truck or barge, by an order of magnitude. When you are moving oil or gas through a pipeline you are only expending energy to move the actual fluid inside the pipes. Trucks and trains require energy to move the truck or the train as well.
- The technology involved with pipelines is mature and well-understood.
- Ironically, pipelines are the safest and most environmentally friendly method of transporting oil and gas (see Figure 3, page 64). Moving oil by pipelines uses less energy per barrel- or ton-mile traveled, so they naturally emit less emissions. Well-maintained pipelines don’t leak, and the spill rate of pipelines versus truck or rail is much less. Pipelines also minimize the interaction between humans and hydrocarbons, making them inherently safer to operate. Pipelines also tend to be buried six to ten feet below the surface, further minimizing accidental interactions. Pipelines offer a leak-free transportation solution as long as they are regularly inspected, have cathodic protection and are replaced when the corrosion allowance is consumed.
- Pipelines are compact and don’t really take up that much space for the value they provide. Take the three-thousand-mile length of the Keystone XL pipeline with a typical one-hundred-foot pipeline right-of-way width; the total land usage of the Keystone XL project works out to about thirty-five thousand acres or about one-seventh of the U.S. farmland owned by Bill Gates.
So Why the Pipeline Controversy?
If pipelines are so advantageous from an engineering and economic perspective, why are they so controversial? The short answer involves the oil and gas contained within them. The longer answer is a combination of political winds, environmental militarism and a prevailing sentiment of “Not In My Back Yard” or NIMBY.
The most high-profile example of these forces converging is the long, twisted and sad saga of the Keystone XL pipeline. The prevailing political and environmental logic against the pipeline goes something like this: if we prevent the pipeline through a combination of lawsuits and permit shenanigans, then the oil won’t be able to get to market, and so it won’t be produced, which results in less greenhouse gases, which is better for the environment.
There are a couple of problems with this logic. First, let’s remember that the U.S. and Canada have already placed into operation over two million miles of pipeline, where Keystone XL adds a paltry two thousand miles of additional pipeline. The original Keystone Pipeline, running roughly the same route, was completed in 2010.
The real kicker is that in the ten years that the Keystone XL pipeline was protested and argued about as a matter of life and death, the oil still got produced and transported, only through a much less efficient and more dangerous method, by rail. Between 2010 and 2014, while the Keystone XL pipeline was debated, crude oil movement by rail in North America increased from virtually nothing to almost one million bpd, just about the pipeline capacity of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Here is the real problem with moving crude oil by rail in large volumes, other than it costing twice as much: it can be really dangerous. A pipeline is stationary; only the fluid moves. A one-hundred-car rail train, filled with crude oil, traveling at sixty miles per hour, is a bomb. This terrible combination of policy decisions and misguided environmental crusades came to a head in Lac-Megantic, Quebec (just across the border from Maine) on July 6, 2013 when a combination of human error and faulty brake system design allowed a locomotive hauling seventy-three tank cars of crude oil to accelerate down a hill with a 1.2 percent incline into the six-thousand-person town, derailing at the rail turn near downtown, exploding, and unfortunately killing forty-seven people in the process. This example shows the extreme outcome of various legal and political measures taken to stop the construction of large pipeline petroleum infrastructure.
Such political battles are being waged in connection with hundreds of infrastructure projects across the country and world. The simple reality remains: pipelines are the most efficient, economic, safe and practical way to move liquids and gases from point A to point B. Nothing being developed for the world of tomorrow is going to change that fact, and although pipelines often become a sort of lightning rod of focus because they are large, stationary and permanent, they are simply the messenger and not the underlying root cause of these political-environmental debates.
What really gets lost in these big pipeline infrastructure debates is common sense. The environmental lobby not only opposes new pipelines, they often use the permitting system to prevent the replacement of existing old pipelines mostly installed in the 1950s and 1960s. Putting up barriers to maintenance of existing infrastructure voids the “well maintained” pipeline clause and often leads to losses of containment that are entirely preventable—which just goes to prove the old adage that if something becomes difficult to do, it is less likely that it will be done.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2022🖨️ Print post
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