Busting 5 pipeline retirement myths

This is the second post in CEPA’s pipeline retirement blog series. Read the first post here: Pipeline retirement 101.

Canadians hear a lot about the safety of new pipeline projects. But what about the safety of pipelines that are no longer needed?

If a pipeline permanently retires, the National Energy Board (NEB) calls the process “pipeline abandonment.” However, you can forget the images that typically come to mind when you hear the word “abandonment.” Pipeline companies are committed to safety whether a pipeline is at the beginning of its life or the end of its life.

In this post, we hope to debunk some misconceptions that may exist about retired pipelines.

Myth or Fact?

Myth: A pipeline can be “abandoned”

Fact: A company cannot just walk away from a NEB-regulated pipeline (the NEB is in charge of pipelines that cross provincial or international borders). If an operator wants to permanently retire a line and associated facilities, it’s still responsible for long-term safety and environmental protection around the area.

Plus, a company needs to get approval from the NEB.

“For all NEB-regulated pipelines, abandonment applications will outline the specific post-abandonment monitoring activities required to protect the environment and ensure public safety,” said Francis Pilley, manager of marketing and commercial services for TransCanada’s eastern U.S. and Canadian pipelines.

If the application is approved, all above ground facilities such as meter stations, pumps and compressors will be removed, and the pipeline will either be safely retired in place or taken out of the ground.

Myth: Landowners pay for abandonment costs

Fact:Landowners are not responsible for costs associated with abandoning or abandoned pipelines,” stated Pilley.

Operators have to pay for the abandonment work, reclamation of the right-of-way and remedial work that might come up after the abandonment work is finished. Plus, under a new NEB decision, all companies that operate federally-regulated pipelines must prove to the NEB that they have money set aside (through a trust or line a credit, for example) to pay for future abandonment-related costs.

Myth: Abandoned natural gas and liquids pipelines are full of product that will contaminate the ground

Fact: If a pipeline is left in the ground, it has to be properly purged and cleaned before retirement.

There are a couple of options for abandoning a pipeline. Companies can leave the pipe in place, remove sections of the pipeline or completely remove the pipeline. However, Pilley explained that in most cases it is safe, less disruptive to the environment and more cost-effective to leave a pipeline in place. Why? One reason is that pipes are covered by land that has likely been undisturbed for the life of that pipeline (which usually is many decades).

When deciding which option to pursue, pipeline companies and the NEB consider current and future uses of the land as well as safety, the environment and cost-effectiveness.

Myth: Landowners don’t have a say

Fact: Pilley explained that consultation with landowners is a “key step” in determining if an abandoned pipeline should be left in place or removed. Pipeline companies must also work with landowners to develop reclamation plans, so that land around facilities can be returned to a state comparable to the surrounding environment.

Myth: Pipeline abandonment is common

Fact: Pipeline facilities are sometimes deactivated or decommissioned (i.e. the pipeline has been removed temporarily from service or has permanently ceased operations). However, Pilley explained that applying to abandon a pipeline is still an anomaly at this point in time.

“Due to the relatively young age of pipeline systems, there have been no cases of abandoning large-diameter pipelines in North America,” he said.

Continuous improvement

Companies are continuously improving their operations to ensure Canada’s pipelines are among the safest in the world. That’s why pipeline operators are working through CEPA and Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) to conduct research on abandonment-related issues. We’ll tell you more about this research in the final post of our pipeline retirement blog series.

Want to learn more?

Read these posts:

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 115,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2013, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.