The pipeline

The-pipeline-01232015My formative years occurred in Nebraska, and for many of those years my alma mater’s football program was far above average. For a time, Nebraskans took a certain amount of pride in what they called “the pipeline.” This metaphorically referenced the process of taking big, strong, small-town, rural, hard-working young men and turning them into very capable linemen who would play for their beloved Huskers. Many of them then would play in the NFL. The “pipeline” connected rural Nebraska farm kids to the NFL.

A pipeline is simply a conduit that provides a path and a means for moving stuff from point A to point B. We live in a world surrounded by pipelines.

Engineers have the good fortune to provide designs for many types of pipelines. Highways, water lines, gas lines, electric power lines, sewers, microwave paths, railroads, escalators, elevators, commercial air transportation, canals – all are essentially pipelines.

Other pipelines occur naturally, for which we should all be thankful. They include aortas, esophagi (I looked it up), optical nerves, veins, tear ducts, carpal tunnels and large intestines.

In my early utility career, we had to replace a small pole in a blind alley (i.e. no drivable path along back lot lines). The city “located” the sewer line before we drilled the hole for the new pole. We hit the middle of the sewer three times before successfully installing the pole. As an aside, it proved to be a fascinating look into what was being generated by that particular neighborhood. This was an early lesson in both the importance of pipelines, but also the challenges they can pose.

Engineers are all too familiar with the challenges of routing, permitting and designing all sorts of pipelines. Power lines, highways, railroads, canals…all face objectors and challenges to the viability, need for and safety of these projects.

Nebraska is again heavily involved in discussions of a different kind of pipeline. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The project is called the Keystone XL Pipeline. It is a multi-billion dollar project intended to transport Canadian crude oil to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. It enjoys many proponents. It enjoys many opponents.

Those of us of a certain age may be viewing the debate and thinking we’ve heard it all before on a very similar project: the Trans-Alaska pipeline.

Pipeline-01232015I had the good fortune to spend three summers in high school doing volunteer work at a Fairbanks, Alaska, halfway house mission. I distinctly recall driving around town the final summer (1972) and seeing piles of green pipe on the edge of town that eventually became part of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. As a senior in high school, I wrote my term paper on this project.

It was going to result in catastrophic oil spills and ruin the environment. It was going to thaw the permafrost. It was going to fail during earthquakes. Caribou would stop mating and migrating. It was not going to lower gas prices and create jobs. The list went on and on. Yet, eventually the project was built and history has debunked all of the objections.

Perhaps a recent research paper from the Heritage Foundation summarizes it best:

“The Keystone XL debate is almost an exact replay of a similar policy clash during the early 1970’s over whether to build the multibillion-dollar Trans-Alaska Pipeline. By examining historical documents, studies, and analyses, this study shows that environmental groups opposed to the Keystone XL Pipeline are repeating, almost verbatim, nearly every discredited argument against building the Alaska Pipeline. Nevertheless, the empirical evidence from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline demonstrates that pipelines can be built and operated in ways that protect the environment and economically benefit the nation. Americans are prudent, yet not so risk averse as to refuse to meet the challenges of tomorrow with proven solutions.”

We make choices, as I’ve noted in previous blogs. Our choices always have consequences, and we need to remember the quote from George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Regardless of the politics and debate, it is gratifying to know that as engineering and technical professionals we have the expertise and social responsibility to design and execute projects, many like the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, that provide long-term societal benefits. We design projects that are safe and environmentally responsible. It’s what we do!

So much more could be said about this, but I need to check out Mel Kiper’s latest tweet about who is filling this year’s NFL draft pipeline.

About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.