Under city streets, through countless acres of open fields, across bridges, and over mountains, pipelines quietly deliver energy resources throughout North America.

“Pipelines” generally conjure up images of large diameter pipes transporting crude oil. However, there are numerous types of pipelines as well; water, sewage, brine waste, and even fiber optics all run through conduit pipelines.

Even though pipelines carry a variety of products, there are widespread misconceptions of pipe commonality; problems surrounding advanced age, improper inspection, poor (or even occasionally non-existent) location maps, or inadequate maintenance. These issues have dominated recent headlines, from local mishaps to national tragedies.

Without a doubt, energy transportation by pipeline ensures pricing and system efficiencies, simplicity, and stellar safety records. By no means is shipping oil and/or gas by rail or truck unsafe. However, using pipelines is the safest way to transport oil and gas over long distances.

Pipeline systems have a commonality of challenges, but also solutions for not only the gas lines running under city streets but every other pipeline as well.

One of the most important developments in pipeline safety is the increasing effectiveness of remote sensing technology. A number of firms are developing incredibly efficient, reliable, consistent, and simple systems to constantly monitor pipeline safety status which a pipeline operator can either buy and install itself or essentially lease the entire system – from hardware to software to monitoring. These systems not only monitor lines for possible corrosion, etc. but can also be used to monitor lead detection, and the security of the pipeline.

These sensing systems are light years ahead of current methods, which involve, in the case of oil and gas pipelines, inserting a pipeline inspection gauge, aka “pig” into the system for 3D inspection. Many water and sewer systems are still using individually operated and inserted cameras or personal physical inspections, to handle most of their monitoring tasks (and usually only after something goes wrong, like a water main break). We must undertake a comprehensive, national underground mapping project. Throughout the country, there are unmarked, unknown, and unexpected underground conduits and pipelines. This problem has led to countless accidents, many with fatal consequences, which are avoidable.

We must also embark on a campaign to ensure proper investments are made to upgrade and replace century-old systems across the country. As pipelines are “out of sight, and out of mind,” national attention remains focused elsewhere, despite the importance of our transportation network.

Public agencies, private companies, concerned citizens, and non-profit stakeholders must join forces to implement these common solutions. We can avoid countless future incidents while improving our economy for generations to come.


From the Archives: This post originally appeared in The Hill and subsequently recapped in Aii’s November 2014 Newsletter.


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.