What Happens to a Pipeline After It Dies?

What Happens to a Pipeline After It Dies?
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Bloomberg / Contributor via Getty Images

Just two months after officially terminating the project, TC Energy is proposing plans to dredge up a stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline that runs over the US-Canada border.

The Canadian fossil fuel company, formerly known as TransCanada, laid out the beginnings of its plans for decommissioning the pipeline in court documents filed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana last week

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Part of those plans revolve around a 1.2-mile stretch of pipe running through a section of public land on which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granted it permits for construction. Now in the process of shutting down the 1,200-mile pipeline after President Joe Biden rescinded its permits the day he took office in January, the company is proposing digging part of the pipeline back up to hand the land back over to the federal government. 

Per a status report for the District Court—part of a lawsuit that the Indigenous Environmental Network and the North Coast Rivers Alliance filed against the company and the Trump Administration in 2019—the fate of this stretch of TC’s pipe could go one of two ways. 

By the end of this month, the oil company will propose a plan for digging up the buried pipeline and reclaiming the land surrounding it. Should BLM reject what it maps out, however, the company will abandon the pipeline in place, instead removing surrounding pump stations, which boost pipeline pressure by receiving and repumping oil back into it along various points in its path. In that event, the company would inject the pipeline with cement to render it “permanently unusable” from either end. 

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Proposed in 2008 as an extension of the existing Keystone Pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Texas, Keystone XL would’ve carried an estimated additional 830,000 barrels of oil, primarily from Canada’s tar sands,,through the US to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would’ve joined the existing line. It was hotly contested by environmentalists and nearby landowners and Indigenous communities as a needless extension of polluting infrastructure, carrying a fuel type that requires a high amount of processing, and thus contributes more greenhouse gas emissions. Regardless, construction began in 2020. 

Segments of the pipeline are permitted by different regulatory bodies—some by state agencies and some by federal offices, like the Army Corps of Engineers, which gave it water-crossing permits. What resulted from this process was a “patchwork of infrastructure strung over almost that entire route,” National Geographic reported in February. By that point, there were already 90 miles of pipe in the ground, and 48,000 tons sitting in yards along Keystone XL’s route, according to the magazine. 

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Now that the pipeline is dead, removing it could disturb the environment that surrounds it yet again. Pipeline construction is well-understood to fragment ecosystems, harm habitats and create noise pollution and day-to-day disturbances for nearby communities; removal likely inflicts many of these same burdens. 

In some known instances of removing long-standing pipelines, where plants have regrown up around the pipe, excavating the infrastructure requires tearing down these newly-grown trees. Removing lines can also contribute to land subsidence or collapse. 

Federal pipeline safety regulations require that owners abandoning pipelines empty all combustible materials from within it, sealing the pipe with cement and ensuring that it cannot be serviced in the future. Pipelines are known to erode and disturb the quality of surrounding soil, corrode and leach metals into nearby aquifers, disrupt the flow of rivers and otherwise pose safety hazards for humans and creatures if exposed. Improperly-sealed pipelines also run the risk of leaking.  

To date, the US is home to an estimated 3 million miles of natural gas pipeline, some of which could be abandoned in coming years as renewables surge and demand for fossil fuels declines. This would be in keeping with the trajectory of abandoned oil and gas wells and mines, both of which emit greenhouse gases, leach toxins into nearby soil and waterways, and occupy land that could otherwise be used or restored. 

In addition to digging up a portion of the pipeline, TC also plans to sell fragments to a pipe broker and return land leased for work camps along its route back to landowners, the status report says. Decommissioning the pipeline is estimated to cost $84 million in total, with $5 million devoted to cleaning the pipe and $17.5 million devoted to its excavation and removal. The pipeline was estimated to cost $8 billion to construct in total, part of which the Alberta government chipped in for in 2020.

“We value the strong relationships we’ve built through the development of this project and the experience we’ve gained,” TC Energy president and CEO François Poirier said in a June 9 statement on the pipeline’s decommissioning. When contacted for comment, a TC Energy spokesperson referred Motherboard to the June statement, adding that, “as a leading North American energy infrastructure provider, [the company’s] purpose and commitment is to deliver the energy people need and use every day in a safe, sustainable and responsible manner.” 

With a necessary transition from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy on the horizon, the question of what to do with the skeletal remains of polluting infrastructure will no doubt come with its own debate.