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Environmentalists have taken a new, and clever, tack in their war against the hydrocarbon economy. As well as going after the companies that pump oil and natural gas, they are going after the companies that transport those products – the pipelines.

And they’re winning. In the past week, three big pipeline projects have taken severe blows.

On Monday, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the Dakota Access Pipeline, which had been in operation and was taking oil from North Dakota to Illinois, must shut down while a new environmental review is conducted. Construction of the pipeline, which is partly owned by Canada’s Enbridge, was fiercely opposed by Native American groups.

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On the same day, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request by the White House to allow construction of Keystone XL, the Keystone pipeline extension that would carry oil sands crude from Alberta to Nebraska. Keystone is owned by Calgary’s TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Corp.). The project has been opposed by environmentalists for a decade and Joe Biden has said he would kill the project outright if he wins the November election.

The day before, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy cancelled their plans to build the Atlantic Coast gas pipeline from West Virginia to eastern North Carolina. Environmental lawsuits had delayed the pipeline for years and raised its estimated cost to US$8-billion from US$5-billion. In a joint statement, Dominion and Duke said “this announcement reflects the increased legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States.”

Dominion is giving up on pipelines. When it announced that it was abandoning the Atlantic Coast project, it revealed that it was selling the rest of its gas transmission and storage network to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway for US$9.7-billion in cash in and debt.

The golden era of the pipeline is coming to an end. During and after the Second World War, pipelines to and from the Texas Gulf coast, home to most U.S. refineries, spread north through the Midwest and beyond like a spider’s web. They transported gas and hazardous liquids, including gasoline, that kept U.S. electricity-generating plants and oil refineries going, creating the greatest industrial machine the world had ever seen.

The pipeline bonanza accelerated after the development of shale oil and gas, which would make the United States the world’s top hydrocarbon producer. Between 2008 and 2019, U.S. oil production doubled and gas production rose 60 per cent. Today, there are some 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the U.S. alone, enough to circle the planet 100 times, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

For decades, environmentalists, Native American groups and regular citizens didn’t pay much attention to pipelines – out of sight, out of mind – even as a few projects, such as Keystone XL, met fierce resistance. Transporting hydrocarbons by pipeline was, and still is, considered safer than sending them by rail car, truck or barge.

But that doesn’t mean pipelines are safe. Almost all of them leak at one time or another and the ones made from iron and steel corrode, thinning their walls and making them prone to rupture. The older the pipeline, the more dangerous it is. The Pipeline Safety Trust says that almost half of American hazardous liquid pipelines, and well more than half of gas pipelines, were installed before 1970.

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The PHMSA monitors “significant [pipeline] incidents” – fatalities, injuries, damages exceeding US$50,000, leaks of hazardous and non-hazardous liquids, fires and explosions. Between 2000 and 2019, the agency reported almost 5,750 incidents, including 280 fatalities, 1,183 injuries and damages of more than US$11-billion. Those are the ones it recorded; data on many other incidents are probably missing. (In Canada, where pipelines are more lightly regulated, information on pipeline leaks is difficult to obtain.)

Enter the environmentalists and Native American groups, armed with lawyers. Since pipelines require a barrage of permits and environmental reviews for everything from their impact on lakes and rivers to air quality and historic sites, they present ideal targets. Every permit can be challenged. Long pipelines, the ones that cross state or international borders, are especially vulnerable to getting lost in legal Bermuda Triangles.

The fight against new pipelines may only be just beginning, since pressure is building on hydrocarbon companies, including pipeline operators, to embrace a net-zero emissions future.

Pipelines aren’t going away, which means they will remain open to legal attack. But there is one way they can make themselves less vulnerable. They will have to convince environmentalists, regulators and the general public they will make their pipelines bullet proof. That means making an epic effort to detect problem areas and dig up sections that are leaking or have the potential to trigger an environmental catastrophe.

Canada, no slouch when it comes to building pipelines, is also building companies that can help make pipelines safer. Quebec’s Eddyfi Technologies makes a range of inspection equipment, such as sensors, that can test the integrity of pipelines and other industrial equipment. Alberta’s OneBridge Solutions, owned by OneSoft Solutions, is considered a leader in developing machine-learning software that detects potential pipeline failures.

The easy era for pipelines is over. Pipelines that clean up their acts will slip more gently into retirement.

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