In many parts of the world, proposed oil and gas pipelines have been stopped due to opposition from environmental groups and regulatory authorities as well as affected communities. Now, a new approach to pipeline route planning is helping to gain a better outcome for the natural environment as well as people in the area.
In the past, pipeline routes were chosen largely through marking the start and end points on a map, using a ruler to draw a straight line between them to show the proposed route, and then adding necessary deviations from that line due to factors such as topography and other technical factors. Then the company would seek permission for that route, accepting further deviations if required.
This “design first, seek permission later” approach is increasingly untenable, as there is growing public attention about the need to plan resource extraction in a way that protects vulnerable species of plants and animals, as well as their habitat. Additionally, communities that are affected by a pipeline route are concerned about potential impacts to their way of life, even as they welcome the economic spinoffs that may come from the development. Pipeline development and route planning must balance all impacts to find the best possible solution for all concerned.
Delivering a transparent pipeline planning process
Current computer-based modelling software can help with this. These systems, like Golder’s proprietary GoldSET ® package, use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data including wildlife habitat, human settlement, watercourses and topography. The data input into GoldSET can then be used to take a “triple bottom line” approach – applying environmental, social and technical factors – to evaluate the desirability of various options to find the best-fit solution. This method facilitates a new approach to planning pipeline routes that can also be applied to the planning of electrical transmission lines, roads and rail corridors.
Understanding and addressing environmental, social, economic and technical risks involves steps that include the following:
Researching constraints and opportunities: The process starts with learning. Pipeline planners consider a wide range of data including topography, existing infrastructure, human habitation, known ranges of animals (particularly those that are endangered or at risk), habitat that supports those species, and locations of cultural or economic significance to people in the area.
Values are assigned to each of these factors – a wetland might be indicated as a low, medium or high value constraint, or potentially a complete “no-go” area for the pipeline route. “Attractions” for the pipeline are also considered. For example, the line might be run through areas that have already been impacted by development, so that pristine land would not need to be disturbed. The process can include input from a team of multi-disciplinary subject-matter experts (SMEs), combining their respective knowledge and arriving at consensus through a workshop process.
A network of possibilities: From that information-gathering stage, it is now possible to develop not just a single proposed pipeline route, but a network of feasible routes. Each segment of that network meets at nodal points on the map, making it possible to assemble a best-possible route combining segments of the network. The objective is maximizing what we call “optionality” – the generation of a wide range of options, partly to demonstrate to all involved that every practical alternative has been considered, and to allow the best combination of segments to emerge.
Meaningful consultation: The next step is to bring that information to the affected communities, along with a wide range of experts in fields such as wildlife, law, and engineering, to gain the community’s feedback. In Canada, some Indigenous communities have sophisticated GIS systems of their own that include Indigenous knowledge about the historic ranges of animals, location of medicinal plant species, and sacred sites.
In many parts of the world this engagement helps to meet the current requirements for early and meaningful consultation with stakeholders. “Early” means that the consultation must take place at the start of the process before decisions are made, and “meaningful” connotes that project proponents must be able to show that community concerns were factored into the development plans.
One big advantage of the information-gathering stage is that when there is scientifically valid information about factors such as wildlife range and habitat, the discussion can be based on factual data rather than well intentioned but uninformed opinions.
Looking for the win-win: Consultation can and should include finding ways to add value. This might include restoring traditional habitat of species such as caribou or improving spawning habitat for fish. It might include economic spinoffs, such as altering an access road for the pipeline so it can serve the needs of the community or dividing off pieces of the construction work so it is accessible to locally- or Indigenous-owned construction firms.
Sometimes, major improvements to a remote community’s life can be factored in, such as routing the main pipeline close enough to human habitation that it is practical to extend a small-diameter line to carry gas to the community. In some remote First Nations in Canada, energy is generated through costly and polluting diesel engines. Having natural gas available can bring about significant improvements in lifestyle, for example making it practical to build community recreation centres, maker spaces, medical facilities and manufacturing businesses.
Projects such as this may add to the pipeline’s cost but be well worth the investment. Running a feeder pipeline off the main line to supply gas to a community, plus support of the infrastructure to use that gas, might add costs in the range of $10 million – a lot for a small community, but the equivalent of perhaps three kilometers (about two miles) of pipeline. Gaining the community’s support, and demonstrating goodwill, may be well worth the cost from the pipeline company’s viewpoint.
Computer-based option analysis via tools like Golder’s GoldSET goes a long way in strengthening the way decisions are made in today’s environment. Including a wide range of viewpoints and knowledge in order to generate the maximum number of possibilities, then narrowing down those possibilities using agreed-upon criteria is best practice and the way forward. The outcome is a paradigm-shifting route-planning process in which all stakeholders’ views and interests have been considered and factored into the end result.
Read more about GoldSET here.