Can Oil Pipelines Be Used To Transport Other Materials?

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Major Pipeline Projects by Capacity 2014What happens to oil pipelines in a post oil world?  Many people think the massive expenditures in pipelines result in a permanent oil infrastructure.  The fact is that pipelines originally constructed to move oil are both reversed and repurposed all the time.

The graphic to the right is from 2014 and shows that oil pipeline reversals and repurposing are not new.

Here are some real world examples about what happens to old oil/gas pipelines.

PIPELINE REVERSALS:

OIL PIPELINE ALTERNATE USES:

Can Oil Pipelines Be Used To Decarbon The Earth?

Alberta and Saskatchewan Oil Reservoirs can be used for CO2 sequestrationToday, new pipelines are being constructed to transport CO2 back to the Bakken and Williston basins (in Alberta and Saskatchewan) where oil and gas are currently drawn from:

“…The Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, when completed, will be the world’s largest CO2 pipeline. The 240-kilometre pipeline will collect captured CO2 from a fertilizer plant and the new Sturgeon Refinery near Edmonton, and pipe it to mature conventional oilfields near Clive, Alberta.”
SOURCE: alaskahighwaynews.ca/business/world-s-largest-carbon-sequestering-pipeline-is-being-built-in-alberta-1.23785172

In the future existing oil and gas pipelines will be reversed and used to transport CO2 from industrial emitters to places like Alberta that have ideal CO2 storage geology in the not so distant future.

“..This paper shows that reuse of pipelines for use with dense phase or supercritical CO2 can be carried out.
SOURCE: 2011 – Pipeline Technology Conference

OTHER OPTIONS FOR OIL & GAS PIPELINES:

“…Europe Stores Electricity in Gas Pipes: Moving renewable hydrogen and methane via natural gas pipelines promises to cut the cost of switching to renewable energy
SOURCE:  April 2019 – scientificamerican.com/article/europe-stores-electricity-in-gas-pipes/ 

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“Pretty much whatever you can think of has been transported through a pipeline,” Vaezi said. His research found examples of pipelines moving coal, gold slime, limestone, iron ore and even wood chips.
SOURCE: cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/pipeline-technology-1.5281589

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“…An additional 30-mile section of this line was recovered and shipped to Vietnam to be used as a water transportation pipeline near what is now Ho Chi Minh City. It will probably be used there for another forty years.
SOURCE: pipelineequities.com/how-to-recycle-pipeline.php

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“…In 2008, our company took up a 6 5/8” diameter line in Central Louisiana that had been in gas service for nine years. The field depleted and the landowner who was using the land for timber wanted the pipeline removed so as to use the right of way to plant more trees. We took up the line, transported it to the CPS yard in Houston where workers cleaned the paraffin out of the interior of the pipe, straighten where needed and removed the fusion bond epoxy coating off of the exterior. We then beveled the ends and sent the pipe on to a recoating yard and it is now in service as a gas transmission line in Oklahoma. Even with all of these steps, the customer saved thirty per cent off of new pipe prices.
SOURCE: pipelineequities.com/how-to-recycle-pipeline.php

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“…From oil to beer: How pipeline technology could change the food industry  …In Bruges, Belgium, for example, as much as 6,000 litres of beer per hour is pumped through a 3.2-kilometre underground pipeline that stretches from the centuries-old De Halve Maan brewery and restaurant to its new bottling plant outside of town.”
SOURCE: cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/pipeline-technology-1.5281589

How Easy Is It To Repurpose an Oil Pipleline?

Changing an oil/gas pipeline to transport a different material is common enough that there are estabilished protocols.  Typically reversing and/or converting an oil pipeline involves:

  1. modifying the existing pumping system, especically if the line is being reversed
  2. cleaning the the pipeline with a “PIG” (aka Pipeline Intervention Gadget)
  3. inspecting / repairing the pipeline with a “PIG”
  4. hydrotesting the pipeline at presure to re-validate the lines integrity

CONCLUSION:

The notion that new oil pipelines are a sunk cost forever emboldening the oil industry, is simply incorrect.  Pipeline companies like Enbridge and TC are well aware that the end of large scale oil exploration will directly affect their businesses.  They are not investing hundreds of billions of dollars into pipelines that will last 75 to 100 years without knowing that infrastructure can be readily repurposed.

Instead of thinking of pipelines as single use systems like high-voltage transmission tower corridors, think of them as paved highways.  Today they can move oil, tomorrow they push hydrogen, later the will transport natural gas, and in dry places like Alberta and Montana they will eventually pump water from the coast.

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