Where to put pipelines?

The NSW government has recently made statements relevant to the pipeline industry that appear to be politically motivated rather than based on dispassionate analysis.  (Even non-NSW residents are probably aware that there is a state election next week, and that the government is, umm, a bit desperate.)

PPO reports on 2 March about the proposed Narrabri – Wellington pipeline:

New South Wales Planning Minister Tony Kelly has inspected potential routes for the pipeline from the air, and said that the inspection reinforced his stance that travelling stock routes and established road corridors should be utilised.

“I do not want prime farming areas of the Liverpool Plains touched, and I will emphasise that when I meet with the proponent again,” Mr Kelly said.

Then just the other day, mixed in with policy on coal seam gas issues, the premier announced that:

Under the proposal, a re-elected Keneally State Government will:

…     Ensure future approvals for gas pipelines are conditional on being located on public land corridors and travelling stock routes to avoid agricultural land.

(Emphasis added in both quotes.  The links above are to industry news site PPO but the same statements were quite prominent in the general media.)

These announcements appear to be attempts to placate landowners who might be concerned about the temporary disruption associated with pipeline construction.  There is a most unfortunate conflation of transmission pipelines with coal seam gas production which (unlike pipelines to date) is becoming an increasingly contentious issue.

I don’t care much about the politics of all this, but I do care about pipeline safety.  Putting pipelines along roads is NOT the safest location for them.  Roads are locations where excavation activities are concentrated.  Excavation can be done by the road owner (shire or government) or any number of utilities – power, telecommunications, water, etc.  Not only is the excavation activity concentrated there, but more people are likely to be present on a public road and potentially vulnerable to any pipeline failure caused by third party excavation.

Sure, it is possible to design pipelines to be largely resistant to most of the threats that might exist along a road corridor – thick pipe, increased depth of cover, concrete slabs at selected locations, and so on.  But it costs a lot.  Cost estimating is not my forte but as a rough guess I think that a pipeline along a country road might be twice the cost of a cross-country alignment by the time you allow for substantially increased wall thickness, substantially increased cover, and construction productivity losses due to restricted work space and frequent obstacles.  If the pipeline is for LNG export then that’s just a cost to the project proponent, but if it’s to supply gas to a power station or consumers then ultimately the cost is borne by the politicians’ beloved “working families”.

But the cost argument is not the main point.  Putting even conservatively designed pipelines along public roads still increases the risk above what it would be on a cross-country route.  A basic principle of AS 2885 requirements for route selection is public safety (Clause 4.2.1).  And in AS 2885 risk management the most preferred risk reduction measure at the design stage is route relocation (Appendix F, F5.3(a)).

There are more subtle effects of putting pipelines in roads too.  Roads often carry power lines, and there are all sorts of electrical interactions between high voltage power lines and parallel pipelines.  These effects can be managed, up to a point, (like third party damage) but at increased cost and with some residual risk remaining.  That risk is unnecessary.

I think this trend to put pipelines in roads should be nipped in the bud.  I’m guessing that proponents of individual pipelines such as the Narrabri – Wellington line may be reluctant to engage in a political battle.  It seems to be a matter for the industry as a whole to engage with planning departments to quietly ensure that they understand the full picture, and can then advise their ministers accordingly.  Whether desperate politicians pay attention is of course another matter altogether.

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3 Responses to Where to put pipelines?

  1. Kristy says:

    Clearly a promise by the government to win over voters but in legal terms of compulsory aquisition, does it matter what politicians say?

    • petertuft says:

      Unfortunately politics and media coverage will always trump whatever the current legislation allows. Compulsory acquisition? Sure, but if those affected by it create a big enough media stink the politicians will roll over, and in NSW the Minister for Planning has almost total control over major projects. Once the public outrage starts it’s impossible to rein it in. While my comments about pipeline route selection based on risk are fine for a professional discussion, it would be a very difficult argument to carry in a media debate (not because the logic is invalid, far from it, but because logic and facts don’t count for much in that forum). Look what’s happened with coal seam methane in Queensland. Certainly there are some real issues there but the hype goes way beyond that.

  2. Pingback: Road hazards | Pipelines OZ

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