The Impact of the Aging U.S. Oil and Gas Pipeline Infrastructure

December 30, 2016

Written by: Cory Wilder, P.E., Michael Baker International National Pipeline Practice Lead

When people hear about the aging U.S. infrastructure, they often think of the roads and bridges we drive on every day. The nearly 47,000-mile interstate highway system was started in 1956 by U.S president Dwight D. Eisenhower, and those original portions – especially the bridges – are starting to show their age. But what about the oil and gas pipeline system that supplies the energy to run our vehicles travelling those interstate highways, powers our businesses and heats our homes? Many more miles of oil and gas pipelines were built before 1960. What does it mean to have nearly 50 percent of the U.S. pipeline system 40 years old or older? It means regional bottlenecks, supply disruptions due to leaks and maintenance shutdowns, increased potential for environmental damage, and ultimately safety concerns.
Approximately 67,000 miles of hazardous liquid (crude oil, gasoline, diesel, etc.) pipelines, 105,000 miles of gas transmission pipelines and 178,000 miles of gas distribution pipelines were built before 1960. Some of these older pipelines were built as far back as the 1920s and many still are in use today.
Some of these pipelines were built to support allied forces during WWII and to fuel the post-WWII era of rapid expansion across the U.S. The trend of pipeline system growth continued into the 1960s and 1970s with the addition of nearly 490,000 miles of pipelines across the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) Pipeline Data Mart, today U.S. DOT PHMSA tracks 1.7 million miles of pipelines. Approximately 21 percent of the total pipeline miles were constructed before 1960, with that figure jumping to 38 percent to includes those constructed by the end of the 1960s and 49 percent by the end of the 1970s. The following graphs illustrate the distribution of hazardous liquid and gas pipelines built, by decade, through 2016.


Recent shifts in oil and gas production regions as well as population growth in some states have increased demand on the pipeline system. Transportation bottlenecks now exist between the new oil and gas production regions and traditional distribution hubs and between those hubs and growing states. To meet increasing demand, pipeline operators are adding pipelines (sometimes under protest), adding pumping and compression horsepower, reversing flow direction and converting pipelines from one product to another. These changes are putting our aging pipeline infrastructure to the test.
This was evident on September 9, 2016, when a gasoline spill was discovered near Pelham, Ala., on the Colonial Pipeline - Line 1. This 36-inch fuel pipeline is a crucial link between gulf coast refineries and the east coast. The 7,370-barrel spill caused a 12-day interruption in the flow of approximately 1.3 million barrels per day of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
PHMSA’s corrective action order to the Colonial Pipeline Company notes that the affected segment between Collins, Miss., and Pelham, Ala., was constructed in 1963 and was composed of 36-inch diameter, 0.281-inch-wall-thickness API 5L X52 pipe. The original pipe generally had asphalt enamel coating and double-submerged arc-welded (DSAW) seams. Over time, several pipe sections in the affected segment between Collins and Pelham were subject to replacement and recoat projects since original construction (assumed for integrity issues), and may have more modern pipe and/or types of coating. According to PHMSA, Colonial excavated the failed section of Line 1 and found a small crack on a buckle that had not been identified in 2014 during internal assessment and, pending verification, was not present during a 2015 recoat project.
Regardless of the technical cause of the Line 1 failure, the event highlights several important issues including the need for major repairs and maintenance work on older pipelines and their vulnerability to damage that may be directly or indirectly related to maintenance work. Unfortunately, a maintenance-related accident occurred on the same pipeline in the same area seven weeks later on October 31, 2016.  One person was killed, several others were injured and the Colonial Pipeline Company was forced to shut down the pipeline system again for several days.
How important is the U.S. pipeline infrastructure? Sixty-five percent of the nearly 100 quadrillion British thermal units (BTU) of energy consumed each year in the U.S. comes from liquid petroleum products or natural gas, the bulk of which is transported by pipeline from the oil and gas producing/import/refining regions of the U.S. 
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review (April 2016)

These energy sources are used in four major markets: transportation, industrial, residential and commercial and electrical power generation. The remaining 35 percent of energy consumption is fueled by a mix of coal, renewables and nuclear power. Planned reductions in coal-fired and nuclear power generation around the country will push more demand toward natural gas and renewables, which, in turn, will require more gas pipelines and power transmission lines.
Since energy plays a critical role in the U.S. economy, we need to keep the energy delivery systems in good working order. We need to foster an environment where pipeline owners and operators can maintain, upgrade and expand pipeline infrastructure to not only meet the existing demand but also to adapt to the ever-changing energy production and demand landscape. 
Private companies typically develop these pipelines, which are expensive to build and maintain. For these companies to effectively deliver our energy, they need government leadership that recognizes the critical role pipelines play in our economy and national security and promotes them nationwide. 
These companies also need a stable regulatory framework at the national and state levels over the duration of pipeline development and operation. This framework must strike a balance among the need for the infrastructure and environmental protection, land use and socioeconomics.  With the backing of government leadership and a balanced approach to regulations, our oil and gas pipeline system will be able to continue to deliver the energy that fuels our nation.