Is Enough Being Done to Protect the Trans Alaska Pipeline from Climate Threats?

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline inside Alaska. Source – Gillfoto, CC SA 4.0

The company that maintains the pipeline has started planning for an emergency after heavy flooding in 2019, but some experts fear it may be too little or too late.

In late summer 2019, an unusually heavy downpour hit the Sagavanirktok River in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. According to Inside Climate News, the August storm ripped 100 feet of land from the west side of the Sag, as the river is commonly known, reaching within 30 feet of a buried segment of the Trans Alaska Pipeline.

The Trans Alaska Pipeline is a four-foot-diameter conduit that transports an average of 20 million gallons of crude oil per day from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, and if the floodwaters reached a buried section of the pipeline at full power, the force would hit the pipe like waves hitting a sailboat on rough seas.

Ultimately, whether above ground or buried, the floodwaters would have severely damaged the pipeline.

Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields: Aerial view of the British Petroleum (BP) and ARCO oil fields on the North Slope. Image dated 1971. Source – US Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain

“Unlike discharges of hazardous liquids on land where it may be easier to respond to and contain spills, rapid river currents will carry hazardous liquids further downstream, potentially affecting much larger geographic areas and more communities,” the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for enforcing pipeline safety, pipeline operators said in a 2019 bulletin.

Two months after the flooding, this close call prompted the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a union of oil companies that owns and operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), to seek state permission to fortify the banks of the Sag in order to protect the pipeline. flood waters.

However, recent weather events related to global warming prompted Alyeska to seek permission to build three massive flood control walls along other sections of the river “to protect TAPS from current and future flooding.”

A taste of things to come

Scientists, pipeline consultants and conservationists say it’s time for us to face a future in which infrastructure like the Trans-Alaska Pipeline will experience increasing attacks from global warming, such as the floods, forest fires, thawing permafrost and sea levels rise.

Part of the TAPS, which runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. It’s on SR 4, south of Delta Junction. It’s on a fault line, so this stretch is built to withstand a large earthquake – the pipe can move several feet in any direction without breaking. Source – Malcolm Manners of Lakeland FL, USA, CC SA 2.0.

The Arctic and Alaska are warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe due to global warming. And global warming is thawing permafrost that the oil industry must keep frozen to maintain the infrastructure that allows it to extract more of the fossil fuels that cause warming.

On June 27, Digital Journal reported on a study featured in a May 31 article in The cryosphere, a publication of the European Geosciences Union. Focusing on infrastructure and the pipeline in Alaska, researchers found that roads, bridges, pipelines and other types of infrastructure in Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic will deteriorate faster than expected due to the inability of planners to consider the impact of structures on adjacent permafrost.

Alyeska is also in the midst of a project dating back to February 2020, to install ground coolers under an elevated segment of the pipeline 57 miles northwest of Fairbanks to stop thawing permafrost that has deformed several of the braces holding the pipeline. This project started in June 2021.

If we include the number of floods that threatened the pipeline – besides the Sag, then we should include the Lowe River, near its terminus in Valdez, eroded its banks in March 2019. Then, in May, 600 miles au north of Valdez, the tumult of the Dietrich River threatened the pipeline along the Dalton Highway near Coldfoot.

According to NBC News, Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan declined to answer specific questions about the flooding that threatened the pipeline or the organization’s overall flood mitigation plan. She said in a statement that the pipeline was built and maintained with consideration of Alaska’s “unique” environment and that Alyeska has an integrity management program that includes a team of engineers specializing in monitoring rivers and flood plains.

Interestingly, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for ensuring pipeline safety, acknowledged the recent increase in flooding along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, but stopped before saying the trend was of concern or required an ordinary response.

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