Dig Safe part 1: know what kind of pipeline you’re working around

April is Dig Safe Month and this is the first in a four-part series exploring what safe digging means, and what you should know about calling or clicking before you dig.

Which Type of Pipeline is it?

Did you know that, when it comes to safe digging, there are different procedures for different types of pipeline?

Where there are homes and businesses, there’s usually a network of underground natural gas distribution lines. They’re the low-pressure lines that deliver natural gas right to where it’s needed – for furnaces, water heaters, stoves and more.

Then there are the high-pressure transmission pipelines that carry oil and gas long distances, including across provincial and international borders. These are the pipelines operated by CEPA members, and tend not to be found so close to homes and buildings because they don’t deliver product directly to the end user.

Let’s take a look at those two different types of pipelines, and what you need to know about digging around them – whether it’s planting a tree or doing construction.

Distribution pipelines

Before starting a digging project, you must click or call for the locate. Your local service provider will come and mark any distribution lines, or provide information on the location of lines bringing natural gas into local homes and businesses. Whether you’re planning a major excavation or installing fence posts, you should always wait for the locate, follow the digging instructions and steer clear of indicated lines. Damage to distribution lines by homeowners and contractors is a major cause of pipeline damage, and can have serious consequences, including repair costs.

Transmission pipelines

High-pressure transmission pipelines, on the other hand, are protected by a right of way (ROW) or easement, which can range from 10 to 40 metres wide, where any kind of activity is very limited. And that doesn’t just mean digging – moving heavy machinery across a pipeline ROW, or even churning up wet earth with an ATV could potentially damage a line.

“Any number of activities that people do around a pipeline could cause damage,” said Ian Turnbull, FortisBC’s damage prevention manager. “It could be anything from a hunter driving a 4×4 along a pipeline right of way in a remote area, to a farmer plowing a field or crossing the pipeline with heavy equipment.”

The ROWs are clearly marked, so if you have a transmission pipeline on your land, you should know about it! But it’s important to be aware that, within a ROW, the precise location of the pipeline may not be obvious.

That’s why, rather than a simple locate service, any kind of activity on a pipeline ROW requires approval. This may come with specific conditions or requirements, because damaging a high-pressure line filled with a potentially flammable product can have serious consequences for both people and the environment.

“These pipelines typically contain a very high pressure of natural gas, refined or crude oil, or some other flammable product,” said Ian. “If it’s damaged enough, it could rupture so you not only have a combustible product coming out and causing environmental and safety issues, you also have a pipeline coming apart with significant force.”

For that reason, pipeline companies have put many safeguards in place, and damage to transmission pipelines is actually rare. Ian explained that some of those safeguards include:

  • Clearly marking the ROW
  • ‘Call or Click Before You Dig’ awareness campaigns
  • Regular mailings or visits to landowners to confirm their awareness and reinforce procedures
  • Aerial surveillance looking for unauthorized activity
  • On site supervision of ROW construction projects when appropriate

Transmission pipeline companies have recognized the risk, and they do such a great job of managing that risk, either by building public awareness or on the operations side, that there is actually very little damage to speak of. What we do have are near misses, or people who come close and are caught before they do any damage.

Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll continue our Dig Safe Month series.

Are you planning an outdoor project? Take our quiz to find out if you need to Click Before You Dig.


The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 117,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2014, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.4 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.