Old broken rusty rotten pipes are taken out from the trench and replaced with new isolated pipeline.

Why Underground Piping Keeps Gas Supplies Much Safer

If you need commercial gas supplies, you may need a lot of pipes fitting and the gas pipework installers could find themselves undertaking a major task to connect your premises to the nearest main supply pipeline, especially if this is some distance away.

Laying gas pipes is, of course, a task that has been undertaken by countless numbers of engineers over the years whenever people have used natural gas. And, for all the talk of switching to renewable energy, the fact is this will continue to be a significant part of the energy mix in the UK and elsewhere for years to come.

There are, of course, multiple ways and places where a pipeline can be installed. One way is to do so above ground in an elevated position. Another could be in a low position alongside other infrastructure, while a third may be underwater. Besides all these is the safest but costlier option of laying pipes underground.

A key point for underground installation is that, where possible, it must be in solid ground and buttressed by firm bedrock or clay to ensure it stays secure. But there are instances where this can be problematic due to the local topography or geology, a good example having been highlighted this week by the North West Evening Mail.

This involves a situation where an offshore gas pipeline comes ashore on Walney Island in Barrow-in-Furness, a point of transition that has come under peril due to the effects of coastal erosion.

In this instance, the soil is not so solid and secure and this means that the pipeline is under threat of becoming increasingly exposed. According to surveys, erosion has already caused the cliff to slump and a fence to collapse, and is “progressing to the point where pipeline exposure may occur in a short period of time”.

Should the pipeline be exposed, that means it could be ruptured by bad weather, collisions with boats, or other accidents, with dangerous results as well as disruption to supplies.

In response to this, the energy company involved, Spirit Energy Production UK, is to make a planning application to Westmorland and Furness Council for its plan to install a protective rock barrier.

If the project does get the go-ahead, it will involve ten feet of gravel backfill between the existing cliffs and the rocks, ensuring a solid barrier to protect the pipeline.

The council will decide if an environmental impact assessment is needed, but while the ecology of the outer north-western edge of Morecambe Bay is important, the consequences of a geotechnical problem leading to a gas pipe being ruptured would clearly be very serious and potentially much more harmful to the local environment.

The case is, of course, relatively unusual. While there may be many places where a pipeline needs extra protection as it makes landfall, particularly on the other side of the UK as the more substantial North Sea fields make landfall on the notoriously crumbly east coast, inland work can usually avoid such threats.

However, there can be places where subsidence, river erosion, or an area being prone to floods can make it vulnerable. Such locations could equally be perilous for any pipes above ground, however, as the ground could shift from under them.

Ultimately, by locating pipes underground they are not only less visually instrusive, but also safer as they will not be vulnerable to impacts,

A plethora of health and safety laws exist in the UK to govern the installation and maintenance of gas pipelines, both for the benefit of installers and anyone else who may come into close proximity to the pipes.

These include significant updates made in 2014 and published by the Health and Safety Executive, which included new safety performance indicators (SPIs).

Explaining the importance of SPIs, the HSE stated: “Major incidents in the gas and pipelines industry and other high hazard sectors happen rarely and are not a reliable indicator of major hazard safety performance.”

For that reason, it noted, it makes more sense to have SPIs based on measurements such as compliance with “critical procedures” and data on “excursions from operating envelopes”.

Another reason pipes can be much safer underground is energy security. This is an issue that has been in the news since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, not just because of the reluctance of Western countries to go on buying Russian gas, but the dangers to undersea pipelines.

Indeed, NATO recently warned that this is a peril that could be realised this winter, as Russian naval operatives could target undersea pipelines and cables off the coasts of western and northern Europe and even the Atlantic. The apparent attack on the Nordstream pipeline last year showed what can happen.

While there is only so much that can be done to protect undersea infrastructure, such as regular naval patrols, the threat is obvious. However, given that this includes not just electricity generated by offshore wind but also oil and gas piped across the sea by major suppliers such as Norway, the risk will remain.

On land, however, this potential risk is more avoidable. It is not impossible that agencies with malevolent intent, be they working for hostile foreign governments, paramilitaries, or simply individuals with a cause, would seek to sabotage major exposed gas pipeworks. By placing them underground, this can be avoided.

Of course, there is a downside to ‘undergrounding’. The very covering that provides extra protection for piping means that if something does go wrong, it may be costlier and more time-consuming to dig the pipe up and fix it.

This is, of course, a common problem as everyone who encounters roadworks will know. But the trade-off is between that and greater safety the rest of the time.

Indeed, since the response to problems with gas pipelines under roads or pavements is to dig them up, fix the problem, replace piping and then cover them over again, it is clear that such cases do not involve a rethink.

Given that a secure, well-fitted gas pipe should last for many years, this is justified, as that should mean it is a long time before any such actions will need to be repeated.

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