When a pipeline retires: 5 things you didn’t know

Pipeline companies have a responsibility to protect the environment and public safety when operating pipelines. They have that same responsibility when a pipeline is no longer in use.

The National Energy Board (NEB) regulates the retirement or “abandonment” of pipelines that cross provincial or international borders. For this post, Alan Pentney, technical leader of engineering at the NEB, helped explain how pipeline retirement and regulations in Canada work.

Here are five things you may not have known:

1.  Pipeline companies need approval to retire a pipeline

If there is no longer demand for a pipeline or it has reached the end of its operating life, a company needs to file a pipeline abandonment application with the NEB (for federally-regulated pipelines).

“If the NEB approves the abandonment application, it will issue an abandonment order, with specific conditions that must be satisfied before the order will take effect,” Pentney said. “These are designed to address any risks to public safety, property and the environment.”

2. Pipelines can be decommissioned or retired

Sometimes a pipeline is decommissioned and in other instances a pipeline must be permanently retired.

If a pipeline is decommissioned, it needs to be properly cleaned, capped and maintained.

If a pipeline is permanently retired (the NEB call this process ‘abandonment’), Pentney explained that the NEB assesses whether it is best to abandon the line in place or remove the pipeline from the ground. This decision is made based on factors such as current and future land use, landowner agreements and the environmental impacts of each option.

3. The public has a say

Public hearings are part of the NEB’s pipeline abandonment review process. These hearings help the NEB decide if abandoning a pipeline is in the public interest.

Companies must also consult stakeholders when developing an abandonment plan.

“The (pipeline) company must develop an abandonment plan with input from landowners, environmental specialists or other technical experts and any other stakeholders,” Pentney explained.

4. Pipeline companies must have an abandonment plan

As part of its application to the NEB, a company must submit its abandonment plan (which integrates the input from stakeholders).

Pentney explained that abandonment plans address issues such as:

  • land use management
  • whether the pipe will be removed or abandoned in place
  • ground settling
  • soil and groundwater contamination
  • pipe cleanliness
  • water crossings
  • soil erosion
  • utility and pipeline crossings
  • the creation of water conduits, where water travels through the pipeline
  • what will happen to pipeline equipment, e.g. risers, valves, piping, etc.

5. Pipelines are never really ‘abandoned’

Companies are responsible for reclamation and the costs associated with retiring the line.

“The costs include the abandonment work, such as cleaning up the surrounding area until it is reclaimed to acceptable environmental standards and unforeseen events such as pipeline settlement or exposure that might occur after abandonment,” explained Pentney.

Even after reclamation work is over, pipeline companies have a responsibility to landowners and the public to ensure the pipeline right-of-way and associated facilities remain safe.

Want to learn more about pipeline retirement? More info here:

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.