As many of us in eastern Ohio have seen, there has been a tremendous amount of pipeline work happening in this portion of the state. The pipelines are necessary due to the liquids-rich gas that the Utica Shale/Point Pleasant provides– liquids that include valuable products like butane, propane, ethane and pentane. These components are what make the Utica Shale so exciting, since they sell at a rate much higher than dry natural gas.
In order to release these liquids from their gaseous state, the liquids must be processed at natural gas processing plants like the M3 project in Kensington and Scio, or the MarkWest plants in Cadiz and Noble County. In order to deliver the “NGLs” to these facilities, companies in eastern Ohio have been putting in long hours to make sure the matrix of pipelines is able to handle the influx of liquids rich gas.
In a recent Columbus Dispatch article, the reporter raised a few questions as to the safety and potential spills involved in these projects. Of course, safety and the environment are two of the most important priorities within the oil and gas industry, and operators here in Ohio have gone to such great lengths to minimize impacts (remember, in the dozens of Utica wells in Ohio, there has not been a single environmental violation to date).
Moreover, the incidents to which the reporter referred were not what one would typically think of as “spills.” But before we get to that, it’s useful to provide a little background on pipeline construction.
In order to bore a pipeline under roads and waterways (which is actually the most environmentally friendly way to site a pipeline), a company must essentially use a directional drill rig. As with all drill rigs, the operator must use drilling mud and drilling fluid to keep the bore moving along. The drilling mud consists of 95 percent water and 5 percent bentonite clay. The drilling mud helps wash away cuttings from the bore and eases the movement of the cutting head through the borehole. Bentonite clay specifically forms a casing on the borehole walls, which prevents the drilling fluid from seeping out. This is typically called a “filter cake,” making it the preferred drilling mud of operators.
In a few instances, however, this mud and water have made their way into a culvert or stream. Unfortunately, when this happens, it can settle on top of aquatic life. These spills are tightly regulated by the U.S. EPA — under the Clean Water Act, as per their Section 404 permits — and are remediated on the off chance that they do occur. If a company fails to comply, it is also subject to stiff fines. Thankfully, these spills are rare, do not consist of anything toxic, and do not threaten our drinking water supplies.
It should also be noted that this type of directional drilling is not unique to natural gas pipelines. Utilities like water, sewer, electric, cable and telephone lines all use this type of practice to route themselves under roads, waterways and railroads.
Pipelines in general — as with virtually any project — have a temporary construction phase. Easements are excavated and the pipelines are laid. Sections of pipeline may only take days to lay depending on the length of pipeline. Once the pipeline is laid underground, the land is reclaimed and seeded — returning the ground to its natural state. So when one argues that the pipelines are altering the countryside, these claims are by definition only looking at a snapshot in time — and they certainly aren’t including the fact that the reclamation and restoration is part of the process.
Pipelines are nothing new to us in Ohio, or anywhere across the United States for that matter. In fact, nearly 2.1 million miles of natural gas pipelines crisscross the country. To put that in perspective, if you laid 2.1 million miles of pipe end to end, you would have enough pipe to stretch to the moon and back — more than four times! Even more impressive? Most people couldn’t tell you where a pipeline is laid after it has been there for a couple months. Those targeting pipelines as some sort of eyesore are just looking for any reason possible to be against oil and gas development, no matter how silly their claims are.
In terms of safety, pipelines are among the safest and most reliable form of transportation we have to deliver natural gas and natural gas liquids. Even from the Columbus Dispatch article, a skeptic acknowledges that pipelines have also improved dramatically (“certainly better than they used to be,” according to a member of the group Carroll Concerned Citizens). Part of that improvement comes from what’s known as “inspection pigging,” which helps reduce leaks.
Inspection pigging is a process that cleans out pipelines while also performing a high tech inspection of pipelines from within. When “pigging” a line, a device will travel through the pipeline and use two methods to gather information about the interior condition of the pipeline: magnetic flux leakage, and ultrasonics. These methods send information back to the operator detailing thickness, imperfections, corrosion or possible leakage in the pipe. With these real time details, pipeline operators know when and exactly where to replace pipe to ensure leakage is averted. Pigging is done routinely throughout the life of the pipeline, keeping the chance of leakage to a minimum.
The bottom line? Pipelines are a necessary and proven way to transport our natural gas. While we may see new pipelines being built, we know these rights of way will only be noticeable until the seeding on the ground begins to sprout, making the right of way disappear into the neighboring fields. We also know they are safe, thanks in large part to innovations allowing companies to get real time information to ensure structural integrity.
Pipelines are nothing new, and the folks who oppose oil and gas development still oppose it in all of its forms. Thankfully, the facts also remain the facts, and they still tell a completely different story than what opponents would have us believe.