Should oil pipelines be better regulated instead of flat out opposed?

Conversation with an author of a new book on pipeline rust, regulation and safety.


If you haven’t heard of “pigging,” whereby oil and gas companies shove what amounts to a highly engineered spitball down a pipeline in order to clean or inspect it, you would not be alone. But the process became a kind of obsession for Jonathan Waldman, the author of Rust, a recently published book on corrosion’s effects on America’s industries and government.

His curiosity about rust’s effect on oil and gas infrastructure led him to the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which stretches across Alaska and transports 500,000 barrels of oil a day. It’s also one of the most tightly regulated and inspected pipelines. In his book, Waldman describes the lengths the pipeline’s managers go to ensure that it's properly pigged, or inspected.

The up-close look at oil inspections convinced Waldman that environmentalists should think twice about taking a stand against pipelines. In a New York Times op-ed, Waldman argued that pipelines like Keystone shouldn’t be opposed, but strongly regulated instead. He spoke with HCN about why he thinks regulation works.

High Country News: Will you describe the Trans Alaska pipeline? I think most people kind of think of it as a relatively placid thing, traversing the landscape.

Jonathan Waldman: The pipeline up (in Alaska) is on stilts because it's on permafrost. So you can't bury it. The pipeline pretty much parallels what's called the Haul Road for 200 or 300 miles up the North Slope of Alaska. The North Slope is sort of a gentle slope like Kansas but it goes from sea level up to 5,000 feet in 150 miles. So you've got the oil a mile high and it wants to run down the hill. When the pig is there to inspect the pipeline, ideally it'd be going nice and slow and smoothly. But as it crests the hill and starts going downhill, it can get going pretty fast and the sensors can break or the wires can snap or the whole thing can heat up and melt. Then as the pipeline keeps going there are more pump stations pushing it up and over the Alaska Range and over the Chugach range.

HCN: How steep is that drop on the other side?

JW: The steepest drop is down the Chugach Range, as it nears the final descent to Valdez and the port where the oil is put on boats and shipped to California and Washington. That part of the pipeline was the hardest to build. They were raising and lowering bulldozers using huge cables. It's very steep and much of that rock is pretty crumbly, so they buried it and encased it in concrete.

HCN: In the book, you say "the pipeline needs the oil as much as the oil needs the pipeline." Will you explain that?

JW: Since the peak day in 1988, the Alaskan oil fields have been producing about 5 percent less every year. Technology is getting better at sucking oil out of the ground but there's less oil to suck out. The problem is this: because there is less oil, as it flows across the state, it now cools. As it cools, it deposits wax on the side of pipeline wall, which makes inspecting hard. The water that's naturally in the oil drops out of solution and forms a little river on the bottom of the pipeline, which makes corrosion problems even greater than before. Below a certain level, things are going to be critical. The pipeline has come pretty close at least once to turning into what they call a giant popsicle (when the oil cools and gels). If that ever happens, it's the end of the pipeline that cost 10 billion dollars to build and many more hundreds of millions to maintain and repair it. (See below for a note from the editor). It all comes down to oil production, which is why they want to drill offshore in Alaska and why the (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and petroleum reserves are so contentious. It's not like oil companies are hellbent on getting Alaskan oil; it's extremely difficult oil to get. But if there's a pipeline to get that oil out, now is the time to get that oil. Without the pipeline, there's no other way to get it.

HCN: Do you think creating sustainable oil and gas infrastructure makes extraction inevitable?

JW: That's like saying aluminum cans encourage soda drinking. The cans don't encourage it. Our thirst encourages it. Whether you like it or not, the world is still thirsty for fossil fuel. Alternative energy is still not capable of replacing all of the fossil fuel energy that the world wants or needs. I wish it were otherwise.

KS: What is the range of pipeline infrastructure in the United States? If Trans Alaska is one of the most progressively regulated and maintained pipeline, what does the bottom look like?

JW: The bottom is probably terrifying. There are a couple million miles of pipelines. You can't inspect every little line that goes under the street in Paonia (Colorado) or here in Boulder. Some of them run across states. A lot of them run from Texas all the way up to New York and Philadelphia. Some of them just cross the state of Texas. Some of them stay entirely within New Mexico and are operated by little mom and pop companies.

A Trans-Alaska pig, displayed in a cutaway pipeline. This is a scraper pig, designed to remove the waxy build-up from the side of the pipeline.
KS: I came away from your op-ed in the New York Times still wondering whether it was possible to regulate and inspect pipelines enough to make sure they're safe, especially given the political climate and the existing infrastructure.

JW: It's definitely mechanically possible. Politically, the one thing pipeline operators hate more than opposition to pipelines is regulating pipelines. All the liberal politicians out there are behind laws built to increase the regulation and inspection of pipelines that don't end up going anywhere in Congress. They're not politically tenable right now. I think they could be. I think it could if the environmental movement got behind it and said, "Instead of opposing something, we could stand for improving something.”

HCN: So do you think there's enough urgency among regulators to make sure these pipelines are safe?

JW: Well, it doesn't quite work like that. Regulators don't go to their boss and say, "We need to toughen up the laws." They don't lobby their congressman. We're the ones who lobby our representatives. It doesn't work from within the system. It has to come from outside the system. Every time there's an accident, we have a six-month window of opportunity. Industry knows this and they resist it. There's an accident, we all go crazy and then nothing happens. Then time passes and it happens again and again and again.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article quoted the interviewee as saying the cost to build the Trans Alaska Pipeline was 2 billion dollars. He actually said 10 billion. The cost to build the pipeline was actually 8 billion dollars, according to Alyeska, the company that now monitors it.


Kate Schimel is an editorial intern at High Country News.