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Oil Pipelines – When Drawbacks Beat The Rewards

There can be numerous answers to the question “what can’t you see but benefits you,” and among them are gas and oil pipelines.

Located deep below the ground or underwater, these massive metal (sometimes concrete or plastic) tubes power up world economies.

Ever heard of freight transport? Pipelines play a crucial role when people transport things – assorted goods and commodities – from one place to another.

This transportation of goods sustains the economy.

Which country doesn’t use oil and gas? Can you imagine how they get transported?

And how about the water that comes out of the faucet in the kitchen sink or when you turn on the shower?

How do you think water reaches households like yours?

Not all pipelines are out of sight, though. Some are constructed above the ground.

This article will specifically explore oil pipelines: how interesting they can be, the assistance they give to people, plus the controversies hounding them.

Oil Pipeline Facts

Here’s one quick fact: the world needs oil pipelines.

Apparently, nations need oil.

People depend on electricity daily.

Those in the cold regions must keep themselves warm. Those in the tropics benefit from air conditioning.

Vehicles need to get moving.

Oil is used to build and pave roads.

What could be the reaction of the 277-billion-dollar (as of 2020, per Fortune) global cosmetics industry if they learn that there’s no more oil?

Below are some of the more fascinating facts about oil pipelines.

History Of Oil Pipelines

Technological advancements have made pipelines look amazingly “modern.”

But oil pipelines have already been in existence since the 1860s, the decade where the torpedo, the typewriter, and the traffic light were invented.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the world’s first oil pipeline could have been built in 1862 in Pennsylvania.

It was made of wood: a “V”-shaped crude oil pipeline constructed using a couple of wooden boards.

A company named Phillips No. 2 in Oil Creek Valley was behind it.

Another oil pipeline – and this time made of iron – was built in 1863. Its length stretched 2.5 miles (approximately 4 kilometers).

In 1865, one oil pipeline, to which the Smithsonian referred to as the “first fully successful pipeline,” was able to transport oil daily.

How many barrels of oil?

Somewhere between 1,950 and 2,000 barrels every day “across five miles of land.”

In the 1900s, crude oil pipelines expanded in the U.S., according to Atmos International (est. 1955), a U.K.-based pipeline leak detection company.

The U.S. had a total of more than 185,000 km. in pipeline mileage by 1920.

At present, gas and oil pipelines are still being built somewhere in the world.

As of 2019, over 3.5 million kilometers of pipelines were already constructed.

A worker in a hard hat walks past massive oil pipes
A worker in a hard hat walks past massive oil pipes

Largest Oil Pipelines

At one point in the history of mankind, the world’s largest oil pipeline was America’s Big Inch.

Constructed in 1942-44, it’s 1,200 miles (2,000 km.) long – snaking its way through 10 states!

Big, indeed.

Longest Oil Pipelines In The World

Prospero Events Group, a Czech company that organizes conferences for the energy sectors in Europe, made a recent list for that.

As of 2022, these are the world’s top five longest oil pipelines:

1. Colonial Pipeline (5,500 miles or 8,850 km.)

  • transports oil and gas from Texas to New York
  • length of time to transport: approximately 18.5 days

2. Druzhba Pipeline (3,417 mi. or 5,500 km.)

  • In Russian, “druzbha” means “friendship.”
  • location: from Almetyevsk in Russia to Schwedt in Germany (20 pumping stations)

3. Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean Oil Pipeline (3,017 mi or 4,857 km.)

  • The Kremlin operates the ESPOOP.
  • location: from central Siberia to Skovorodino (a Russian town near a Chinese border)

4. Keystone Oil Pipeline (2,151 mi. or 3,462 km.)

  • carries oil to different parts of the world from a forest in Canada
  • 39 pumping stations

5. Kazakhstan-China Pipeline (1738 mi. or 2,798 km.)

  • 142 million barrels of oil (20 million tons) per year
  • location: from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang (a region in China)

Biggest Pipeline Oil Spill

One sad fact – a tragic truth – about oil pipelines is that, despite all precautions taken, spilling may still occur.

In terms of ai nland oil spill, the biggest one in the U.S. happened on July 25, 2010.

Dubbed as the Kalamazoo River Disaster, an estimated 1 million gallons of crude oil spilled on Michigan’s 209-kilometer Kalamazoo River.

Dangers Of Oil Pipelines – Meeting Halfway

Now that the feared oil spills have been brought out, we might as well discuss the pros and cons of oil pipelines.

For starters, according to a 2017 online article by the Auburn University in Alabama, over 1,000 kinds of chemicals are found in crude oil.

Most of those chemicals such as benzene (this one can cause leukemia, or cancer of the blood) are harmful to people.

Why Do We Need Oil Pipelines?

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) would gladly answer that:

From the time you get up in the morning until you go to bed at night, it’s difficult to find a moment when you haven’t used energy transported by a pipeline.

For TC Energy, a Canadian natural gas company, people receive “essential energy” through oil pipelines.

They’re important because we use them in cooking, in running hospitals and other vital institutions, and in creating useful materials – among several other things.

It’s predicted that for the next 30 years, oil, along with gas, will supply energy to countries.

In addition, compared to using trains and ships, TC Energy underlined how “safer” and “more efficient” pipelines are when it comes to transporting.

Moreover, pipelines have lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

An autonomous excavator prepares trenches for an oil pipeline installation in Queensland, Australia
An autonomous excavator prepares trenches for an oil pipeline installation in Queensland, Australia

How Do Oil Pipelines Help The Economy?

The world reaps economic benefits from oil pipelines.

Based on a 2016 study by IHS Economics and the U.S. National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), pipelines created 1.9 million jobs in the U.S. in 2015.

Texas-based natural gas company ExxonMobil also highlighted how pipelines help in making prices of consumer goods low.

As they say, there are two sides of the coin; two sides to every story.

Let's now take a look into the cons of oil pipelines.

Why Are Oil Pipelines Bad?

In a nutshell, oil pipelines can cause “direct” harm on people and on the environment (and that includes wildlife).

That’s the argument raised by New York-based media company Green Matters.

It also claimed that they are not as safe as what oil companies would often tell the public.

Regarding pipelines, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers has this to say:

They are the safest way to transport oil and natural gas.

Still, Green Matters stressed how earthquakes and hurricanes as well as human errors (e.g., inefficient management, deficient equipment, poor maintenance, etc.) resulted i oil spills.

According to Watershed Council, an American grassroots organization:

There are two types of pipeline incidents: leaks and ruptures.

Leaks happen more often but create less damage. Ruptures can be rare but cause “catastrophic consequences.”

From the data shared by the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity, an estimated average of 300 pipeline incidents occurred per year from 1986–2013.

That’s approximately 8,000 disastrous pipeline incidents.

They lead to over 2,300 injuries, with damages amounting to around $7 billion.

The data also revealed this: the most commonly spilled (1986–2013) was oil.

Greenpeace, an international non-profit environmental group, cited two major reasons why people should protest against oil pipelines:

  • Indigenous communities suffer because pipelines are constructed in their territory.
  • As of 2017, in the U.S. alone, approximately 34 million gallons of oil and other hazardous liquids got spilled.
Six environmentalists, with a sign that says, ‘Respect our land. No pipeline!’
Six environmentalists, with a sign that says, ‘Respect our land. No pipeline!’

There’s a plan to build more oil pipelines (and similar pipeline projects) in the U.S. by 2030, according to Washington-based non-profit organization Earthworks.

The catch?

It would involve the clearing of 60,000-150,000 acres (24,281 to 60,702 hectares) of forest.

In 2020, StateImpact Pennsylvania reported about a company cutting 558 maple trees (some were centuries-old) to pave way for a pipeline development.

It's clear that oil pipelines have their hits and misses.

The government, oil companies, organizations, and the public in general should meet halfway when it come to pipeline developments.

Sneak Peek – The Controversial Great Lakes Oil Pipeline

The Holleran family faced a court battle just to save those maple trees that once stood at their 23-acre property in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Apparently, they lost.

There’s a similar battle being waged in Michigan concerning the 645-mile (1,038 km.) twin oil pipelines called Line 5.

It’s located west of the Mackinac Bridge, which spans one of the Great Lakes.

While many Michiganders rally for support to have it shut down, some politicians think otherwise.

Gubernatorial candidates running under the Michigan Republican Party disputed the call, according to the American Independent Foundation (AIF).

Oil & Water Don't Mix, an environmental coalition in Michigan, wants the public to know that:

Line 5 has spilled 33 times and at least 1.1 million gallons along its length since 1968.

The Great Lakes – Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior – hold approximately 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater.

They likewise account for 84 percent of North America’s surface fresh water.

Line 5 is old – has been operating since 1953.

In 2018, the two oil pipelines each had a dent and a cut after an anchor hit them.

Will there be another oil spill sooner or later?

Members of an environmental group aboard a boat show huge cut-out letters that say, ‘shut down Line 5’
Members of an environmental group aboard a boat show huge cut-out letters that say, ‘shut down Line 5’

People Also Ask

Do We Need More Oil Pipelines?

In the case of the U.S., it doesn’t.

Amy Mall, an advocate at the New York-based non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), wrote that the U.S. “overbuilt” on gas and oil pipelines.

Are U.S. Oil Pipelines Full?

No, they’re not.

As a matter of fact, in December 2021, Reuters reported that the country is not using an estimated half of its oil pipelines.

But all the pipelines are already “half-full.”

What Countries Have Run Out Of Oil?

According to the magazine Oil and Gas World, these countries have dwindling oil reserves:

  • Colombia
  • United Kingdom
  • Norway
  • Mexico
  • Indonesia

Will The Earth Run Out Of Oil?

According to the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) at Stanford University, oil will be depleted by 2052.

Conclusion – The Future Of Oil Pipelines

Oil pipelines, despite the environmental risks as well as land issues confronting them, are here to stay.

In America, they sure are.

The U.S. Department of Transportation noted that 65 percent of the energy used by the U.S. come from oil, gas, and petroleum.

That’s also what the U.S. Department of Energy said, according to Forbes. Those three will supply the country’s energy until 2050.

TC Energy said that in the U.S., pipelines are used to transport 66 percent of crude oil.

Therefore, even if sometimes the cons outweigh the pros, oil pipelines – with the fervent hope that spills will be prevented – will continue operating.

About The Authors

Paolo Reyna

Paolo Reyna - Paolo is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in International Studies with a Latin American emphasis. During the fall semester of 2012, he had the opportunity to study abroad in Peru, which piqued his interest in international growth. He learned about the disparities that impact indigenous peoples, got a taste of Peruvian culture, and improved his Spanish skills. Mitchel interned with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, conducting research on food security in Latin America, after being inspired by his foreign experience. He wants to work in international development and for a government department, writing legislation. He loves playing intramural basketball and practicing for the Chicago marathon when he is not thinking about current events in Latin America.

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