Written by Nicole Roche

Historical references about the use of oil and gas can be found as far back as 6,000 B.C. Whether it was used to fuel vehicles, to set stones into jewelry, or to provide heat and light to dwellings, there has always been the question of how to collect and transport it to the end user.  Today, the safest and most reliable mode of transporting oil and gas is via ‘pipelines’.

According to the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), if laid end-to-end, there are enough liquid and natural gas pipelines to circle earth 20 times at the equator. Pipelines are a major part of our energy industry and are essential to providing the means to produce everyday products we rely on.  One of the major challenges that the Canadian oil and gas industry has faced in recent years is how to gain access to new markets and international prices – something that pipeline capacity plays a big role in.  Based on information provided by About Pipelines, pipeline operators transport approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid products and 5.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas each year which equates to 97% of Canada’s market.

How do oil and gas pipelines work?

The energy industry refers to two types of pipeline systems that transport product from its point of extraction along the value chain to be processed, stored, and ultimately distributed to the end user. These are liquid pipelines (transports crude oil, natural gas liquids (NGLs), diesel, gasoline, and other petroleum products) and gas pipelines (transports natural gas).

Both pipeline systems use a series of pipelines to move product along the value chain. These terms are often used to differentiate the series of pipelines.

  • Gathering Lines are short distance small diameter (2-4 in.) lines that transport unprocessed product to central locations for storage or processing.
  • Feeder Lines are longer distance midsize diameter (4-8 in.) lines that gather and transport product to the transmission lines after initial refinement (liquid) or processing (gas).
  • Transmission Lines are long distance large diameter (8-48 in.) that transport liquid and gas products within and across national borders for refinement, storage, or distribution. Natural gas lines carry product to a distribution system.
  • Distribution Lines are short distance small diameter (2-4 in.) that distribute natural gas to residential and commercial end users.

What are the stages of the pipeline lifecycle?

  • Feasibility
  • Design & Planning
  • Construction
  • Operations
  • Maintenance
  • Abandonment

The feasibility stage focuses on a broad-based analysis of a pipeline project to understand the range of conditions under which the project remains viable. A few of the basic considerations within this stage are operating requirements (e.g., type of pipeline, pipeline diameter, compression/pumping requirements, pressure and pipe grade, volume and type of product), environmental assessments, and financial projections.

The design & planning stage uses the results from the feasibility stage to develop a pipeline design and project plan. Pipeline design will include information such as pipeline routing (e.g., location, environment, regulatory considerations, etc.), hydraulic design (e.g., flow conditions), mechanical design (e.g., material strength, wall thickness, and load requirements), financial analysis (e.g., refinement of initial financial analysis) and contracting (e.g., construction crews).

The construction stage is the most visible and labour intensive stage of the pipeline lifecycle. There are multiple steps within the construction stage to prepare a location for the installation of the pipeline and required facilities.

The operations stage is the longest part of the pipeline lifecycle and runs in parallel with the maintenance stage. Some of the equipment associated with day-to-day operation include pumps (oil) and compressors (gas) (e.g., product movement within the pipe), valves (e.g., control product flow), measurement (e.g., product volume and quality), controls (e.g., monitor operation).

The maintenance stage is critical to the ongoing operations and longevity of the pipeline. There are three types of maintenance that occur during this stage: ongoing routine maintenance (e.g., conducting routine inspections and upgrading the pipeline system on a regular basis to prevent issues), preventative maintenance (e.g., using the methodologies set out within the Management System (MS) and to reduce potential risks and hazards), issue based maintenance (e.g., conducting maintenance on the part of the pipe where an issue has been identified such as repairing pipe where there was a leak due to corrosion).

The abandonment stage is the last stage and is the permanent removal of the pipeline from service. The pipeline may be entirely removed or left in place.

Pipelines play a critical role in getting hydrocarbon products to market, and everyone in the industry benefits from having an understanding of how pipelines work and why they are so important to oil and gas. The pipeline industry is committed to improving practices, regulations, and safety for all pipeline systems and within each stage of the pipeline lifecycle to maintain being the safest mode of transportation. This means continuously working towards the goal of zero incidents. As stated by About Pipelines, operators are focussed on improving pipeline inspection and leak detection, advancing reliability programs, design and monitoring programs, damage prevention and enhance emergency response and preparedness.

Content within this article has been extracted from the Introduction to the Pipeline Industry course offered through the Centre for Pipeline Knowledge. For more information about pipelines and the pipeline industry, visit www.pbok.ca\cpk.

Nicole Roche is an educational professional and currently employed as the Manager of Training & Development at PBOK Consulting and the Centre for Pipeline Knowledge. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Communication from Royal Roads University and two diplomas in New Media Production and Design and Business Administration (Management) from SAIT Polytechnic. Nicole started her career in the energy industry over ten years ago in curriculum development at SAIT Polytechnic for the MacPhail School of Energy. Since leaving SAIT in 2011, she has held a number of learning and development roles at both oil & gas companies and pipeline operators.