How do oil pipelines work?
January 24, 2017 2:54 PM   Subscribe

The Keystone XL and DAPL are back (like a bad comic book villain). And I'm curious about how they are actually constructed. Where is a good place to look?

I remember hearing about the Alaska pipeline a joke that Reagan had said that "caribou rub up against it and have children," so I assumed that all pipelines are above ground. But the DAPL is going underwater. How do they decide which parts are above ground and which are below? For above ground, how do they protect against damage from falling trees/ice/horny caribou? For below ground, how do they detect where a leak is and patch it? How do they defend against tree roots/earth movement (earthquakes, frozen ground, fracking)?

Also, anything on how often these things do actually leak and how much trouble below ground leaks are is interesting also.

I'm not asking why I should oppose these projects (anything that brings more oil to be refined is a flat no, also the fucking over of Native Americans even more), but more how the engineering behind them works.
posted by Hactar to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have the perfect book for you! The book Rust by Jonathan Waldman has a whole chapter on oil pipelines and how they check for leaks. There's not much I can remember about the construction of pipelines, but I found the info about cleaning and maintenance fascinating. The whole book is much better than you'd think, given it's all about rust, but the chapter on the pipeline is especially fascinating. Definitely recommend!
posted by lilac girl at 3:02 PM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hardly unbiased, but you could do worse than checking out The parts of the Alyeska Pipeline I've seen have been above ground, and surrounded by open space. It seems unlikely to attract any animals, unless they're looking for warmth, since it is a gigantic silver pipe. But the AP folks are very interested in marketing the engineering of the pipeline, which makes it relatively easy to learn about. They may even have elementary-level learning guides.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:08 PM on January 24, 2017

Best answer: That books DOES look good! There is also this backgrounder. That looks to be un-biased source, this however, is obviously pro-pipeline but has a lot of infomration on the page.
posted by saucysault at 3:10 PM on January 24, 2017

In about 1978 or so I saw a promotional film for the pipeline at a Kiwanis Club meeting (I was a small-town newspaper reporter at the time). I don't remember much about the movie, but the soundtrack music was amazingly good. I wish I knew something about it.
posted by lhauser at 7:03 PM on January 24, 2017

Best answer: Pipelines in the US are typically installed below ground. This is a really basic primer on standard open tench construction methods. Special trenchless construction techniques, like those used to cross large water bodies, interstates, or other sensitive resources, can include horizontal directional drilling (HDD) or boring.

If you google the term "Resource Report 1" and pick any result that comes up for a pipeline project, Section 1.4 of that report typically describes construction procedures. These reports are only completed for natural gas pipelines, but the construction methods are the same for basically all large-diameter pipelines.
posted by tryniti at 2:01 AM on January 25, 2017

Best answer: Back in 2004-2006, an acquaintance of mine who is a pilot, did a two year stint making daily flyovers of pipelines in Wyoming and Montana, checking for leaks. She sometimes was called upon to make special flights when cameras, seismic activity or pressure readings indicated the need for additional inspection. If issues were noted, she would forward GPS data to the appropriate crews, who would worked at ground level and mitigate problems as needed. She indicated that all of this was required to comply with environmental regulations.
posted by dustkee at 10:08 AM on January 25, 2017

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