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Norway's Langeled pipeline is a massive engineering challenge with the potential for an even more massive payoff when it is successfully operating in two years time: It could supply more than 20 per cent of the United Kingdom's natural gas.

Almost three million tonnes of rock are being laid on the bottom of the North Sea between Norway and the U.K. to support and stabilize the route for construction, planned for a seabed at depths of more than 1,000 metres, where the terrain features ragged underwater peaks that can jut up 60 metres. At sea level, the weather can be brutal -- gales and giant waves are typical. Below, the water in some parts is so cold that antifreeze will be needed to keep the gas flowing.

It is in this environment that the 1,200-kilometre link is being built. It will be the world's longest undersea pipeline and perhaps the industry's greatest construction challenge to date. The severe conditions "have imposed considerable challenges," Rita Tubb, managing editor of the Pipeline & Gas Journal in Houston, said with marked understatement.

Contending with such extremes is quickly becoming the norm in the pipeline business, where there is a new urgency to connect remote supplies of oil and natural gas with hungry consumer markets. The fear of energy shortages has heightened the sense of urgency, but these megaprojects require years to plan and build -- and those timelines are just getting longer as the challenges grow. They include engineering puzzles, but also environmental tests and security issues to guard against terrorist efforts to disrupt supply.

Other extreme pipeline proposals include an oil connection across more than 4,000 kilometres of Siberia and a gas line of similar length across the Sahara desert in Africa.

All this shows that while the world is desperate for new supply lines, the prospect of getting something built within a couple years is just as remote as the much of the world's oil and gas supplies.

Around the world, there are multibillion-dollar plans to build the most ambitious pipelines in history, generally charted to cross remote regions such as the Canadian North, Siberia and the Sahara. Major advances in technology are helping make long-held dreams of such connections a reality and are a reason Norway's undersea Langeled is even possible.

Ever-increasing demand for oil and gas seems to justify the significant risks behind such proposals. And few disagree that new transport routes are badly needed.

"The world oil supply-demand balance is so tenuous that every new pipeline is valuable," said Robert Ebel, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I don't care where it's laid. If it moves oil to add to supply, it's valuable."

But even projects that are relatively simple, such as the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline in the Northwest Territories, won't be ready for years. Plans -- more than 8,000 pages worth -- have been submitted for official review, the companies backing it have the requisite money and most players involved wholeheartedly support the idea -- but gas won't be flowing down the valley until 2010, at the earliest.

Elsewhere in the world, such as Western Africa or Eastern Russia, trying to build a line that traverses two or three countries is as difficult as it sounds.

And on the fear scale, worries about supply shortages run neck-and-neck with worries about terrorist attacks on vulnerable infrastructure.

"Every small disruption is immediately felt," said Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington. Pipeline attacks fit well within terrorists' vision of an economic war against Western economies, he said. "Every time a pipeline is blown out, it affects behaviour on trading floors."

This fear makes building pipelines more expensive and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan line, which opens today, is a perfect example. To thwart attacks, it is buried for its entire 1,760 kilometres as it wends from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, a factor in its $3.6-billion (U.S.) price tag, among the most expensive pipelines ever built.

And even with a buried line, pipeline operators have to use surveillance equipment such as unmanned helicopters for aerial patrols. Foot patrols are used, too.

"More and more money is going into pipeline building," Mr. Luft said. "No matter what you do, you end up paying more money than you used to."

The price tags, looking at the list of proposed lines, are going higher -- and not by small increments. In Canada, the Mackenzie line is budgeted at $7-billion (Canadian), up from a previous estimate of $5-billion, and it will probably rise further. Higher costs for crucial elements such as steel and labour are a big factor.

On the extreme side, a natural gas line out of Alaska could cost upwards of $20-billion (U.S.) -- which is what the eventual price tag for a gas line out of Siberia into China and South Korea could be as well. A Siberian oil line looks as if it would ring in at around $15-billion.

Financing these plans scares even the biggest energy companies in the world. The Alaska backers include Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC -- and last year those two giants wrung $18-billion in loan guarantees out of the United States Congress. In Russia, the oil line is currently drawn to hit a proposed export hub on the Pacific Ocean, a route backed by the Government of Japan, so much so that Japan has said it would pitch in at least $10-billion to see the line built to the coast -- instead of into China.

Japan and China -- both wanting to reduce their dependency on oil from the Middle East -- have battled to get Russia's Siberian oil heading their direction. Russia isn't keen on helping China but is very keen on securing a role as a leading seller of energy to Asia, a market it has been shut out of by lack of transportation infrastructure.

The geopolitical tensions between the competing interests of three powerful countries suggest that a new Siberian oil pipeline will move slowly rather than quickly, even though Russia declared just this month that the first leg will be done by 2008.

"The logistics are difficult and it could take over a decade to [complete the full 4,100-kilometre line]" said a report last month by Chatham House, a leading international think tank in London.

The northern lines planned for North America face their own difficult logistics, such as running an underground line through permafrost. The human challenges are significant as well. First Nations are loudly calling for a better deal in the pipeline proposals, saying previous offers are insufficient to get the multibillion-dollar projects built across their land.

Such demands could become much more significant than many energy industry players believe, analyst Dominique Barker of Credit Suisse First Boston has said. And they are already fairly significant, given that Mackenzie backer Imperial Oil Ltd. cited unreasonable demands from First Nations as a factor in April when it halted most work on the Mackenzie pipeline.

First Nations see it differently, determined they will not be bullied by companies like Imperial, which is controlled by Exxon Mobil. Keyna Norwegian, chief of the Liidli Kue, which is part of the Deh Cho First Nations, is among the most strident.

"[Our demands are]not going to bankrupt them at all," she told The Globe and Mail this month.

***

'The competition for oil could lead to armed conflict, particularly with China." MILTON COPULOS: PRESIDENT, NATIONAL DEFENSE COUNCIL FOUNDATION

'I don't care where it's laid. If it moves oil to add to supply, it's valuable.' ROBERT EBEL: CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES

'More and more money is going into pipeline building.' GAL LUFT: INSTITUTE FOR THE ANALYSIS OF GLOBAL SECURITY

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Under the North Sea

Langeled, the world's longest undersea pipeline, presents huge engineering and construction challenges. Running 1,200 kilometres between Norway and Britain -- longer than the distance between Calgary and Victoria -- it crosses a greatly uneven seabead and must endure frigid subsea temperatures.

North Sea platform

The pipeline will connect with the Sleipner riser platform in the North Sea, which allows the independent operation of the northern and southern sections. The Sleipner connection means gas from Ormen Lange can flow either to the United Kingdom through Langeled or through existing pipelines to the European continent.

British landfall

Gas will be piped from the Sleipner platform to receiving facilities at Easington, on England's east coast. Here, the gas will be cleaned, measured and adjusted before further transport through Britain.

The gas field

Ormen Lange is the second-largest Norwegian gas field. It lies about 1,900 metres below the seabead -- at water depths of between 850

and 1,100 metres -- and covers an area about 40 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide.

Undersea connection

To meet challenges posed by seabed conditions, the Langeled pipeline will be trenched in areas where the water depth is less than 60 metres for greater stability. The southern leg from Sleipner to Easington is expected to be operational from October, 2006; the

Onshore processing

Gas from the Ormen Lange field will be piped to the onshore process and gas export facilities at Nyhamna on Norway's west coast, where it will be prepared for transport through the northern leg of the pipeline to the Sleipner platform. The processing complex is scheduled for completion by February, 2007.

Vital statistics

Length: 1,200 km

Capacity: 2.5 bcf/d of natural gas

Status: Under construction

Cost: $3.2-billion (U.S.)

Backers: Norsk Hydro ASA, Gassco AS, Petror AS, Royal Dutch/Shell Group, Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips Co.

In service: 2006/2007

Wells: up to 24 subsea wells

SOURCE: WWW.ORMENLANGE,COM, NORSK HYDRO ASA, STATOIL

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