Building the World

ENERGY: Pipe Dream or Nightmare?


Fossil fuels like oil and gas are carried around the world by pipelines. Image: “Vortex street animation gif” by Cesareo de La Rosa Siqueira, 2006. Dedicated to the public domain, Creative Commons0 1.0, by the designer and included with appreciation.

Pipelines carry energy in a distribution system that is one of the most complex in the history of civilization. But the energy pipeline had humble beginnings. In 1821, William Hart of Fredonia, New York, saw something bubbling on the surface of Canadaway Creek. He ran home, grabbed his wife’s washtub, placed it over the bubbling area, drilled a small hole in the tub, stuck a barrel from an old gun (disconnected) and let the gas rise up. He’d seen kids playing around with the bubbles and lighting them on fire. So, when the gas bubbled out of his make-shift tube, he lit it: it burned.

William Hart discovered natural gas bubbling up from Canadaway Creek. He dug nearby and fashioned what may be one of the first energy pipelines. Image: “Canadaway Creek in New York” by photographer Schetm, 2022. This image is dedicated to the public domain, Creative Commons0 1.0. It is included with appreciation.

Realizing that this substance was a kind of fuel, Hart dug nearby, rewarded by a modest flow. Looking around for a few hollow logs that he could bind with rags and tar, Hart built a primitive pipeline and sold the energy source to a local tavern, perhaps giving new meaning to the bar quip “fire water.”

Image: “HDPE Pipeline in Australia” by photographer GordonJ86, 2013. This image is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0. It is included with appreciation.

Globally, there are so many energy pipelines that, if laid end to end, they could circle the globe 30 times. In the United States, there may be over 190,000 miles (approximately 305,000 kilometers) carrying crude oil from field to refinery to terminal. There are even more natural gas pipelines: 2.4 million miles (3.8 million kilometers). With all that volatile fuel coursing night and day, what could go wrong?

Image: “Pipeline Leak” photograph by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1972. Image is from National Archives NWDNS-412-DA-3515. Public Domain and included with appreciation.

Fatigue can wear us all down: even more so for pipelines that never get to sleep or take a vacation. In April 2023, Canada’s TC Energy spilled 14,000 barrels of oil in Kansas, USA, because of a fatigue crack that began as a construction imperfection and gradually worsened until it spilled. As a result, the whole pipeline, normally conveying 622,000 barrels-per-day, shut down for three weeks. Mill Creek in Kansas suffered longer.

Nigeria suffered over 600 pipeline leaks in 2020. Image: “Nigeria as seen from space” by NASA, 2015. This image is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 and is included with appreciation.

Unfortunately, pipeline leaks are not unusual. Nigeria suffered over 600 pipeline leaks in 2020. Every leak is deadly to wildlife, harmful to land and water, and costly. In four years (2015-2019), energy pipeline failures cost over $1 billion in property damage. What’s the remedy? While fossil fuel pipelines are still in use, detection and repair remain critical: half of the failures are due to corrosion.

Smart pigs are robotic devices traveling pipelines to detect cracks or leaks. Image: “Ancient drawing by unknown artist.” This fascinating image is in the public domain and included with appreciation.

Enter the “smart pig.” Invented in 1961 by Shell Development, this early form of mobile AI robotic devices launched commercially three years later by Tuboscope. How did “smart pigs” get their whimsical name? When first sent on a test mission, gears on the devices made a squealing sound that sounded like baby pigs. It is known that pigs are intelligent, and these devices certainly were, and are, smart.

Trans-Alaska Pipeline used smart pigs. Image: “Trans-Alaska Pipeline International” is licensed under Creative Commons 2.5 and is included with appreciation.

When Canada and the United States built the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, smart pigs were inserted into the infrastructure to measure flow and detect problems. Magnetic flux tools track metal loss: ultrasonic tools measure pipe wall thickness and look for cracks. Smart pigs enter via a “pig launcher” that then closes to let the pipe’s normal pressure carry it along, measuring and checking for problems, before arriving at a receiving station where it can be retrieved for data download. Pigs are not an afterthought to be deployed upon presentation of a problem: pipelines must be built to accommodate pigs before the energy system begins operation.

Line 5 affects the Chippewa, other Tribal nations who hold sacred the environment the pipeline traverses. Will the Alliance for Tribal Clean Energy guide the way? The U.S. States of Michigan and Wisconsin are also affected, and the lawsuits also Canada’s Enbridge. Image: “Flag of the Sokaogon Chippewa” by graphic designer Xasartha, 2014. Creative Commons 3.0, and included with appreciation.

Even when pipelines do not have technical problems, they cause legal problems. Transboundary issues are common: by definition, pipelines go the distance. For example, in the United States, “Line 5” traverses the lake bed of the Straits of Mackinac, a water passage connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Michigan, Wisconsin, and more than 20 Tribal Nations are affected. And then there’s Canada, where Enbridge, pipeline owner, receives 540,000 barrels of crude oil and natural (should we change the name to “methane gas?”) gas. The Tribal Nations raised concern bout their environment. The Wisconsin Chippewa filed a suit challenging the trespass on their land. Michigan opened a law suit concerning the section of Line 5 that traverses the Straits. There is now a judgement requiring Enbridge to reroute the pipeline and pay a $5 million fine (an appeal is in progress). Claiming Canadian rights granted by a 1977 treaty, Enbridge countered with an appeal and a proposal: they want to invade the Strait even more by building a tunnel made of concrete below the lake bed. While a pipeline may be difficult to remove, even more so a concrete tunnel.

How can we bridge a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy? Image: “Nénuphars et Pont japonais,” by Claude Monet 1899. This image is in the public domain and included with appreciation.

As we phase out coal, the world may continue to taper off oil and then, gas. In that transition, there are many issues of justice, environment, resource management, and transition strategy. Some energy advisors advocate keeping at least some fossil energy options available, as a bridge. Then, if a renewable energy source failed, and back-up energy storage also failed, we could “open the tap.” As Professor Emily Grubert warned, during a presentation at the Harvard Kennedy School in April 2024, in order to keep a system reliable, it has to be run periodically even when not needed. And, while we have tested the maximum flow volume for energy pipelines, have we yet tested the minimum? What is the right way to balance transition to renewable technology while still making sure there is backup? Phasing out fossil fuels may need more planning.

What can we do with all those pipelines? Image: “Animation of a capacitor using flow analogy in a pipe” by KDS4444, 2014. This image is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0, and included with appreciation.

As we free transition from fossil fuel sources, what will we do with all those pipelines: above ground, buried beneath, and those snaking lake and sea floor? Do you have ideas for reusing or repurposing pipeline infrastructure?

Alliance for Tribal Clean Energy.

Baker, Michael Jr. Inc. and Raymond R. Fessler. “Pipeline Corrosion,” November 2009. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Office of Pipeline Safety, U.S. Department of Transportation.

Davidson, Frank P. and K. Lusk Brooke. “Trans-Alaska Pipeline,” Building the World, Volume Two, pages 681 – 709. Greenwood: 2006. ISBN: 0313333742. Note: contains the original contract for the pipeline.

Grubert, Emily. “Planning the Mid-transition for Just and Sustainable Decarbonization.” 1 April 2024. Harvard Kennedy School. Please see recording on Belfer Center YouTube.

Grubert, E and S. Hastings-Simon. 2022. “Designing the mid-transition: A review of medium-term challenges for coordinated decarbonization in the United States. WIRE’s Climate Change.

Halleck, Rebecca and Dionne Searcey.  “A Great Lakes Pipeline Tangles Politics in Two Battleground States.” 27 March 2024. The New York Times.

Hussein, Mohammed. “Mapping the world’s oil and gas pipelines.” 16 December 2021. Al Jazerra.

Lacroix, Karine, et al., “Should it be called ‘natural gas’ or ‘methane’?” 1 December 2020. Climate Communication, Yale University.

Lindner, Jannik. “Pipeline leak statistics.” 20 December 2023.


Williams, Nia. “TC Energy says Keystone oil spill caused by fatigue crack,” 21 April 2023. Reuters.

U.S. Congress and Government of Canada. “Agreement Concerning Transit Pipelines,” 1977.

U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, “Fact sheet: Inspections (smart pigs).”

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 U





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