What are your pipelines made out of?

Editorial by Chezney Martin

Peru faced three oil spills in one month this year, Nigeria experienced an oil leak that went into local creeks after a key pipeline was sabotaged this past January, the North Slope was flooded with 1,000 barrels of oil in Alaska last November, and in May of this year, the Gulf of Mexico saw a largely unnoticed spill of 90,000 gallons of oil leak out, after a fault in a pipeline remained unfixed since May 2011.

The videos of fishermen crying as oil suffocates the very fish that were once lifeblood to their families, the comparison photos of the differences between water sources before and after a spill, and the posts on social media expressing outrage and confusion; they’ve each become the stories we don’t really want to see or hear.

But that’s just it. Although it doesn’t make the situations of those affected by oil leaks to be any less hard to swallow — something that isn’t very well circulated is the direct cause of pipeline leaks.

Each oil, the way it is spilled and even the type of environment it comes into contact with has to be assessed when trying to figure out how bad a spill is. The types of oil vary and their effects on the environment differ as well — the two types of oil are commonly considered sweet and sour or “light” and “heavy.” Gasoline and diesel fuel fall into the light category, while bunker oils that fuel ships and other large vehicles are considered heavy.

Light oils evaporate quickly, so if they are spilled in a marine environment they don’t tend to remain for very long. But, light oils carry two significant dangers; one is being toxic to animals they come into contact with by physical contact or inhalation, and second, their likeliness of being set aflame.

Heavy oils on the other hand are the sticky and tar-like oils that can remain in an environment for months if not years if they are not removed properly. These oils are less acutely toxic, but their short-term effect is the possibility of smothering nearby organisms as well as coating them and preventing body-temperature control. As well, heavy oils seem to carry the worst long-term effects, as many can cause chronic health problems such as tumours.

Nonetheless, crude oils are transported through pipelines. In the Canadian pipeline network more than two million barrels of oil are transported per day — that’s enough to fill two Olympic swimming pools. As well, these pipelines are made from carbon steel, which makes them susceptible to corrosion, even with an anti-corrosion coating.

There are three types of oil pipelines and they are listed as: gathering lines which travel short distances and move unprocessed product to oil storage tanks, feeder lines which carry product from oil storage tanks to transmission lines, and transmission lines which transfer the product to consuming areas. So, for transmission lines — and there is 100,000 kilometres of them in Canada — there has to be 0.05 per cent water content.

Why? Because the water in the oil is what causes most leaks in the pipelines through internal corrosion. External corrosion however, is caused by the electrochemical interaction between the pipe and the surrounding environment — which tends to be underground — after the pipes protective epoxy loosens in time.

The point being made is that the percentage of oil spills that have contaminated water in the last decade globally have accumulated to being unreasonably terrible when we can pinpoint what causes major leaks. Let’s just remember that roughly 70 per cent of the earth is water, but only 1 per cent of that water is useable.

So, why make pipelines out of carbon steel?

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