What happens when a pipeline is no longer needed?

Operators are never really done with a pipeline. It may be deactivated temporarily, decommissioned or retired, but it always remains the responsibility of the pipeline operator. Pipeline companies have a lifetime commitment to ensure their operations remain safe for the public and the environment, even if a pipeline isn’t being used.

If a pipeline is removed from service, the operator follows procedures from the applicable regulator. If a pipeline stays within provincial boundaries, it’s the provincial regulator. If it crosses provincial or international boundaries, it’s the National Energy Board. These regulations ensure the pipeline retirement plan is focused on the environment, safety and what’s best for the public and landowners.

Here’s how it’s done:

Creating a plan

When retiring a pipeline, the operator’s goal is to continue to protect the environment and public safety. A plan is created with input from landowners, environmental experts and other stakeholders. The plan includes a thorough assessment of potential problems and solutions for areas like erosion, ground settling and contamination, as well as the strategy for ongoing monitoring of the pipeline right-of-way.

Applying to the regulator

The regulator must approve the retirement of a pipeline. A public hearing is held to discuss the retirement plan and get input from stakeholders.

Pipeline companies are responsible for all the costs involved in retiring the pipeline.

Removing the pipeline from service

Sometimes a pipeline is decommissioned, and in other instances a pipeline must be permanently retired. If a pipeline is decommissioned, it will be properly cleaned, capped and maintained. If a pipeline is permanently retired, the regulator will assess whether it is best to leave 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.

In most cases it is less disruptive to the environment to leave a pipeline in place.

Reclaiming the land

Pipeline companies, landowners and regulators work together on the reclamation plan to return the right-of-way to a state comparable to the surrounding environment. Once reclamation is complete, the operator will continue to monitor the retired pipeline to ensure the area quickly returns to its natural state.

Biologists and agrologists re-establish native species found in the surrounding area.

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“How can we be assured that a spill from a dilbit pipeline won’t take over five years to clean up?” – Scott R. (Whistler, B.C.)
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