How does a natural gas pipeline work?

Natural gas comes out of the ground under pressure, so the most effective way to transport it is using a series of compressor stations along the pipeline.

Entering at the source

In a typical natural gas field, a number of small gathering lines lead from each well to gas processing facilities.

Processing the natural gas

At the gas processing facility, natural gas liquids (NGLs) like ethane, propane and butane, are separated from the natural gas, and contaminants like water, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide are removed, before being transported via liquid pipelines to oil refineries for processing. Because natural gas is odourless, a product called methanethiol is added to the remaining natural gas to make it smell like rotten eggs, making it easy for people to detect gas leaks.

A natural gas processing facility. Photo courtesy of Enbridge Pipelines.

A natural gas processing facility. Photo courtesy of Enbridge Pipelines.

Natural gas needs to be processed into the products we rely on every day.

Pumping through the transmission lines

Once it’s processed, natural gas pipeline operators ship the natural gas through large transmission pipelines to the people who need it. Compressor stations are located along the pipeline route every 65 to 160 km. Large compressors similar to jet engines (with up to 36,000 horsepower) move natural gas through the pipeline at around 40 km an hour.

Photo courtesy of Enbridge Pipelines

Photo courtesy of Enbridge Pipelines

The compressor station and pipeline form a fully enclosed system so natural gas does not escape.

Storing and shipping the gas

If the natural gas needs to be stored before it’s delivered to the end user, operators may use naturally-occurring below ground storage. These can be depleted reservoirs that once held the natural gas that has been extracted, or salt caverns, ­which are know­n for their non-porous and waterproof properties.

It’s then delivered to Canadians through distribution pipelines. Currently, natural gas provides close to 35 per cent of Canada’s energy needs, according to Statistics Canada.

Smaller distribution lines transport product directly to users, like power generators, homes and businesses.

You Asked

“Say you have a breach in a length of pipeline somewhere in the heart of the Rockies, and for argument’s sake, let’s say the breach is in the most remote area of the pipeline route. How long until the breach is detected, how long until the oil flow is stopped due to a pressure drop and the activation of the safety valves, and how long until it can be repaired?” – Alex O. (Burnaby, B.C.)
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