Constructing an oil pipeline is a complicated process, and that’s before they ever start. Just getting the government permits to begin is a nightmare in itself, as anyone that’s worked on the lobbying for the Keystone pipeline will likely tell you. Even if you have the backing of the government to construct a pipeline, there are other interest groups to deal with – in particular, the environmental lobby. Once you’ve sorted all that out you can begin construction. Here’s a brief explanation of how they do it.
Getting Started – The Staging Process
Every construction project has a beginning and that usually involves an initial staging area and headquarters where the construction workers and their engineer bosses start their day. These yards are used for storing heavy equipment, the pipe, fencing, and various other tools and equipment that may be needed during the process. Building a pipeline is a huge endeavor and this initial buildup can take a while.
Clearing a Path
There’s a reason they bring in all that heavy equipment – they have to clear a path through which to run the pipe. You can’t just use a camp knife to chop down that many trees. You have to clear cut any trees that are in way and remove other obstacles from the path. Normally, the landowners are compensated for the disruption and they retain rights to the land around the pipeline area – they may even be allowed to sell the lumber from the clear cutting process. The path has to be completely cleared before the company building the pipeline can even begin to think about laying any pipe.
Once the trees are out of the way, it’s time to start digging. A trench is dug to create a passageway for the pipes that will be laid using heavy duty excavators. These are the machines that you always wanted to drive as a kid, and for the lucky guys that get to drive them it’s like a childhood dream come true. The engineers that create the design for the path that the pipeline will take try to keep it as straight as possible. The only reason they will deviate from their chosen path is to go around natural landmarks when there’s no other choice.
Bring On the Pipe!
Once the path is cleared and the trench is dug, the workers finally get to start laying some pipe. The sections are generally stored in the staging area until workers are ready for them so that they’re available when needed. The segments of pipe are typically between 40 and 50 feet long. When there is a deviation from the straight path, these sections of pipe are bent, using a special tool to work around the obstacle. Once everything’s in place, the whole thing is welded together to create a sealed pipeline for the oil to flow through.
Dealing with Obstacles
As we’ve mentioned, sometimes the construction has to go around obstacles, but that’s not always the case – even when there is an obstacle in the way. Sometimes the engineers are able to work out a way for the pipeline to go under or even through an obstacle. This is usually possible when dealing with shallow streams or even small hills. Whenever this is feasible it’s normally the better option, as bending pipe around obstacles can be difficult work.
Testing Before the Flow
If you’re thinking that must be it, think again. Before a pipeline can be used it has to be fully tested to make sure that it’s properly sealed and that the flow is steady and strong. This is done using a procedure referred to as hydrostatic testing. Essentially, the company that built the pipeline obtains permission from surrounding jurisdictions to use thousands of gallons of water from the local area and pump it through the lines to test the integrity of the line. As with anything else regarding a pipeline this can be controversial, as local activists are not typically happy about that much water being taken from the natural environment.