Pipelines 101: An Introduction To North American Oil & Gas Pipeline Routes and Safety Concerns

Read time: 4 mins

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to be rolling out a whole lot of information about pipelines. Why?

Because these metal tubes are truly the blood vessels of the oil and gas industry. Without them, the industry wouldn't be able to deliver the liquid fossil fuels to their refineries, or out to the customers after that. Technically, it could be done with trucks and trains and tankers, but the economics just wouldn't work. Without pipelines, liquid fossil fuels become impractically expensive.

(Note: you can find all of the posts in the pipeline series with the “pipeline” tag, or by following the links at the bottom of my post.)

So through one lens, pipelines are incredible. They cart valuable petroleum products from source to refinery to end use with remarkable efficiency. And they do so really cheap!

But not all is so rosy with these tools of fossil energy infrastructure. Pipelines leak and spill – pretty often, actually. They run through fragile ecosystems, under waterways, and across incredibly valuable aquifers. And as crucial as they are in delivering affordable fuel to your gas tank or furnace, they're pretty tempting targets for anyone who wants to deal our nation's energy supply a serious blow. In other words, our dependance on oil and gas pipelines makes our nation vulnerable to a terrorist attack, a concern that's been long established in security circles.

Pipelines are typically built and paid for by private companies. But public support is crucial to the industry, and it comes in many forms, from eminent domain takings to subsidies and tax breaks to favorable environmental impact reviews.

You typically don't hear much about pipelines, unless something goes wrong. And even then, hearing something about them is rare.

So let's start at the top, and explain the very nature of pipelines: what kinds there are, what functions they serve, and where they run.

Types of pipelines

In general, there are two main types of energy pipelines: oil pipelines and natural gas pipelines. For now, I'm going to focus on those that carry oil.

For the oil industry category, there are pipelines that carry crude and others that carry refined petroleum products. If you'll allow me to expand the blood vessel metaphor, crude pipelines are technically the veins that carry crude oil from the source to refineries. Just like our veins, they get thicker as they get closer to the spot they dump their contents out. “Gathering lines,” typically about 8 to 24 inches in diameter, collect oil from wells and then hook up into larger “trunk lines” that carry the crude over long distances to the refineries. The famous Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), a trunk line, is probably the most well-known American pipeline, and it's a full 48 inches in diameter.

In all, there are roughly 55,000 miles of these thick crude oil trunk lines in the United States.

Refined product lines carry the end products of the oil industry – gasoline, jet fuel, home heating oil, diesel fuel, and so on. These stretch across nearly every American state (with a couple of exceptions in crowded New England), and in all, there are thought to be about 95,000 miles of refined product pipelines.

Where are they?

The first question that probably jumps to mind is: are there any near me? For crude oil, it's actually not so easy to find out. Official natural gas pipeline maps are out there, like this one from the Energy Information Agency

But for security reasons, official government websites don't publish the locations of crude lines. On private company's sites you can find some not-so-detailed maps. Like this one from Canada's Centre for Energy.

But by far the most comprehensive map I was able to find came from an interesting site called Theodora, an information publishing site that gathered lots of data from primary sources and mashed it up into this impressive map. Green lines are oil pipelines, red carry natural gas, and blue carry refined petroleum products.
Here is the larger map of North America:
Theodora map of North America pipelines

And here is a closer look at the U.S. pipeline system:

You can see how a bunch of big red “trunk lines” come down from Canada and Alaska, funneling crude to refineries in California and the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.

Check back soon for more information on pipelines. On Friday, we'll have a special and urgent (considering a current piece of legislation in the House) post on pipelines that carry crude from Canadian tar sands. This diluted bitumen or “DilBit” is actually a potentially unstable blend of thick raw bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensates. It is highly corrosive, more acidic than “regular” crude, and as such, the likelihood of it spilling or leaking out of “DilBit” tar sands pipelines is far higher than normal. More on that Friday.

Read more in the pipeline series:

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“But public support is crucial to the industry, and it comes in many forms, from eminent domain takings to subsidies and tax breaks”

Why do these pipelines need to tap the public purse?

Because apparently the fossil fuel industry doesn’t get tax payer handouts. They are a profitable private enterprise that doesn’t need big government.

Notice he doesn’t even give one single example of any net “subsidy”?

Why do you suppose that is?

“Notice he doesn’t even give one single example of any net “subsidy”?

Why do you suppose that is?

So do you believe they dont exist? If I provide one will you apologize?

I notice you didn’t provide an example, though.

But knock yourself out, Phil. Give us just one instance where oil and gas are subsidized at a NET LOSS to taxpayers. In other words, prove that any aspect of the oil and gas are paid more in subsidies than they generate in taxes, lease payments and royalties to the government.

Take your time.

“But knock yourself out, Phil. Give us just one instance where oil and gas are subsidized at a NET LOSS to taxpayers.”

Well anon, you would probably accuse me of spamming if I posted so many links, but lets do a few eh?

Exxon despite $2.6B profit domestically alone & during the height of the GFC, paid NO tax, while continuing to take tax payers money through subsidies & tax breaks.


For PRIVATE companies, that whinge incessantly about big government, it seems they don’t mind putting their hands in the public purse. If they are turning profits & not just scraping it through, I mean multi billion $$ profits, then why……….why do they need public taxpayer handouts?


” Oil company profits have been a de-facto dinner table conversation for a few years now, what with the biggest few companies reaping wildly huge profits. In the 1st quarter of 2011 alone, Exxon/Mobil made $11 billion, Shell made $6.9 billion, BP made $7.1 billion, Chevron made $6.2 billion, and ConocoPhilips made $3.0 billion. That’s a lot of profit, even if the oil companies had to pay their fare share of taxes on it like the rest of us do. However, not only do they not pay their fare share but the government gives them about $4 billion in annual tax subsidies. Yes, our government, i.e. you and I, pay for the oil companies to get a $4 billion tax break when they are showing billions in profits. You and I effectively reduce their taxable income by $4 billion dollars each and every year. When was the last time the government, or your fellow tax-paying neighbor, handed you boat loads of money and told you they were going to help you pay your taxes, even as you were reporting record profits year after year?”


When was the last time that government allowed you turn earn say $100k per year……..& then also built your driveway, maintained your house, made your tax rate a much lower tax rate than the majority of the rest of the country, then when you decide you want to dump rubbish in someone else s house…..they pick up the tab…not you?

Because that is what the oil companies get away with.




Tax payers pay for their infrastructure, like rail, ports, roads, that is entirely for their benefit, not the public’s, plus they get subsidies, PLUS taxpayers pay to clean up their mess…..& you think the oil companies pay MORE in TAX?

You are one funny guy. How’s Alberta going?

Do not worry, anonymous. We will have plenty of information about how pipeline subsidiaries receive tax breaks and subsidies in a future post. This was just an overview introduction post, and we will be drilling down into all the details over the next couple of weeks. Sit tight, and stay tuned!

“Phils oil use is being subsidized by the taxpayer and it’s driving him nuts.”

I don’t have a problem with fossil fuels getting subsidies, if other energy sources are gettingn the same. Do you have a problem with renewables getting the same amount of subsidies as fossil fuels?

Kill all the subsidies.

The trouble with renewables is energy return on energy investment. The payoff is so far in the future. No one touches renewables without a whole bunch of other people’s money.

That’s why it’s still an oil world.

Governments play around with subsidies but in the end oil pays for itself. It comes down to energy return on energy investment and oil wins by a thousand miles.

“Kill all the subsidies. ”

I’m with ya brother. And so that renewables are on an even footing, lets give renewables a few trillion in subsidies that the fossil fuel corporations have had over the past decades & THEN lets cut the subsidies eh?

Then they are on their own. Fully responsible to build their own rail, ports & roads as well as fork out the FULL amount for clean up costs of any spill or solar panel falling over, without the taxpayers money having to interfere whatsoever. Sound fair?

“The trouble with renewables is energy return on energy investment. ”

I’m sure if we give the renewable sector a few billion in R&D grants that the fossil fuel industry have got over the years we wouldn’t have any problem at all.

“The payoff is so far in the future.”

It’s not that far into the future & what’s more, once it’s paid off, it’s pure profit from that point on.

When my home solar is paid off in 5 years, I will be paying about $60 per year & that’s only because the energy retailers charge a minimum fee for accessing their grid regardless of your energy use. If I continued to stay on fossil fuel generated energy only, my power bill would continue to be between $2k - $2.5k per year.

With fossil fuels, there IS NO payoff except for the owners of fossil fuel corporations. For you, there will be perpetual payments for energy.

“Governments play around with subsidies but in the end oil pays for itself. It comes down to energy return on energy investment and oil wins by a thousand miles.”

If it was truly that self sufficient it would need NO taxpayer handouts…yet it does. It’s also important to note that the USD is largely tied to oil & it is in their interest that the rest of the world continue to not only use oil, but trade in the reserve USD currency.

d’Smogblog: Frantically deleting comments and blocking IP addresses.

What are they trying to hide?

“d’Smogblog: Frantically deleting comments and blocking IP addresses.

What are they trying to hide?”

Going back a week or so ago, someone was impersonating me. Both myself & the impersonator asked that the mods check & ban the person responsible. The mods banned both of us until they could determine which one was the culprit. I’m no longer banned, but you are…….guess we know now who was responsible for the impersonations & smear.

Considering this blog has virtually no censorship & moderation ( & you know it), it’s quite apparent that you have failed in your continuing efforts to smear.

Gold mate….comedy gold.Pretty soon you will win a darwinian award.

‘d’Smogblog: Frantically deleting comments and blocking IP addresses.’

And you know that how?

I can guess.