Pipeline retirement 101: Uncovering the truth

This is the first post in CEPA’s pipeline retirement blog series. 

Just like other transportation infrastructure such as railroads and bridges, Canada’s pipeline routes adapt to changing demand. This sometimes means sections of line are retired if they are no longer needed.

“Demand for transportation service changes over time,” explained Francis Pilley, manager of marketing and commercial services for TransCanada’s eastern U.S. and Canadian pipelines. “Changes in service levels requested by customers may result in some of a pipeline’s facilities no longer being required.”

Unlike railroads and bridges, pipelines are underground, so Canadians can’t always see what happens to this critical infrastructure when it’s not in use. This post aims to uncover the truth. Think of this as an introductory course on pipeline retirement.

The vocabulary:

Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB), the regulator in charge of pipelines that cross provincial or international borders, uses specific vocabulary for pipelines no longer in use. You know how at work you can take short-term leave or you can permanently retire? The same is true for pipelines.

If a pipeline is “deactivated,” the line has been removed temporarily from service.

If a pipeline is “decommissioned,” it has permanently ceased operations such that the cessation does not result in the discontinuance of service. In this situation, the pipeline needs to be properly cleaned, capped and maintained.

If a pipeline is “abandoned,” it’s permanently retired. In this scenario, the pipeline company submits an abandonment plan to the regulator that integrates input gathered from landowners, environmental specialists and other experts. This plan helps determine if it’s best to leave the pipe in the ground (after the line has been cleaned and treated) or to remove it. We’ll discuss both of these options in an upcoming post.

When a pipeline is decommissioned or abandoned, the operator is responsible for reclamation of land in the surrounding area and must ensure the right-of-way and associated facilities remain safe.

The basics:

(To keep it simple, we’ll refer to deactivation, decommissioning and abandonment as retirement in this section.)

How often are pipelines retired?

Pipelines do retire, but placing a pipeline or its related facilities (such as meter stations, compressor stations and pumping stations) “not in service” is not a regular event in Canada, Pilley said.

Why would a pipeline need to retire?

Pilley explained that there are a few reasons a pipeline may be taken out of service:

  • There is a change in the physical design of the pipeline system
  • There is no longer business demand for the pipeline facilities
  • A regulatory agency, like the NEB, has asked a pipeline company to remove a facility from service 

How does the public know when a pipeline is retired?

In order for a company to take a pipeline out of service, it has to get approval from a regulatory body. Public notification, consultation and involvement are all part of this process, Pilley explained.

The important part:

Pipeline companies must always ensure their operations remain safe for the public and the environment, even if a pipeline isn’t being used.

“Pipeline companies follow guidelines set out by the NEB when facilities are removed from service,” Pilley said. “The guidelines ensure the plan for removing facilities considers safety, environmental impacts and a cost-effective approach.”

Want to learn more about pipeline retirement? Here is some additional reading:


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.