underground gas line pipe - pipeline

The History Of The World’s First Subsea Natural Gas Pipeline

Natural gas has been transported via pipelines since the days of ancient China in the 4th century BC, when bamboo was used to carry gas to provide light and heat for homes. However, gas was not transported for commercial purposes until the 19th century, when wooden pipes were used to convey gas in New York State to light street lamps.

The early 20th century saw a huge surge in the type and distance of gas pipelines installed, as more underground natural gas reservoirs were discovered, and the methods of extracting it became safer, faster, and more efficient.

By the 1880s, gas pipelines were already being laid underground. This was for practical reasons rather than aesthetic considerations as might be the case today. The operators noted that cast iron pipes were prone to expanding during hot weather, and would occasionally even buckle or sag.

Furthermore, during freezing temperatures the pipes would contract. As they were constructed from screwed together sections, the threads could fail causing the pipes to come apart and resulting in significant leaks. This led to the innovation of the pipes being buried a few feet underground, insulating them from the extremes of the weather.  

One of the earliest long distance gas pipelines was built in the USA in 1891 to carry gas 120 miles from wells in central Indiana to Chicago. The pipe had no artificial compression system and was approximately just five or six inches in diameter. By the 1930s, most pipes tended to be constructed to at least eight inches in diameter to increase the capacity in the system. 

The early 19th century also saw improvements in the materials and construction methods of the pipes. There was a shift away from cast iron sections that were screwed together, because these were heavy, not thermally resistant, and prone to warping and breaking apart. 

Steel pipes that were welded together with an oxyacetylene technique were first introduced by the Philadelphia and Suburban Gas Company in 1911. All-welded pipelines were leak-proof, and could be manufactured at much larger diameters of up to 36 inches in a pressurised system. 

This hugely increased the capacity and cost efficiency of transporting natural gas and oil. Further innovations included coating the pipes in coal tar to make them more robust, and inspecting the welding with radiography techniques.

The world’s first underwater natural gas pipeline is thought to be the Maracaibo Lake Submarine Gas Pipeline, which was constructed in 1914 and was 26 miles long. It transported gas from fields under the lake to the city of Maracaibo in Venezuela for industrial and domestic use.

Despite these innovations, the emphasis was on transporting oil rather than natural gas until the mid-twentieth century. Oil was more straightforward to transport and use as a fuel, and demand was burgeoning thanks to the emergent automotive industry. In fact, natural gas was often treated as a waste product of oil extraction until after WWII.

However, by the 1940s techniques for safely burning gas in home and industrial appliances greatly improved, and demand soared as energy consumption increased significantly. The first subsea oil pipelines were constructed in 1944, to transport oil under the English Channel between England and France.

The project was nicknamed ‘Pluto’ (an acronym for Pipeline Under The Ocean) and it saw the construction of several small diameter pipes that were able to deliver a million gallons of fuel per day underneath the English Channel. This paved the way for many more undersea fuel pipelines for transporting both oil and natural gas.  

Until the construction of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, the Langeled pipeline was the longest subsea natural gas pipeline in the world. It carries Norwegian natural gas 725 miles under the North Sea to the United Kingdom, with a maximum capacity of 25.5 billion cubic metres per year, which represents 20% of the UK’s peak gas demand.

Construction began in 2004 and the pipeline was opened in two stages. The southern section from the Sleipner Riser Platform to the Easington Gas Terminal on the English coast opened in October 2006, and the northern pipeline from the Nyhamna Terminal in Norway to the Sleipner Riser Platform opened in October 2007.

In 2011/12, the Nord Stream took the title for the world’s longest natural gas pipeline. This runs some 750 miles between Germany and Russia, and comprises a pair of pipelines that run under the Baltic Sea. The pipes each have a diameter of 48 inches and combined capacity of 110 billion cubic metres per year.

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