How to Recycle a Pipeline

In 1920, an 8 5/8″ diameter pipeline was laid near Tulsa, Oklahoma for the transportation of crude oil from a new discovery field to a tank farm 40 miles away. The field had flush production or large amounts of crude initially, but was depleted within a few years. In the late 1920’s, new fields were being discovered on a regular basis in the Permian Basin of Texas. This same pipeline was recovered from Oklahoma and transported to Texas to transport the new crude oil from the new wells to a tank farm.

When the pipeline was originally laid in Oklahoma, it was spread out in 20 foot sections kicked off of wagons pulled by teams of mules into a pre-made ditch. These individual joints were screwed together at these 20 foot intervals and tightened with chain tongs to hold “back up” and 48″ pipe wrenches with a “cheater” or 3 foot extension of 2 1/2″ outside diameter pipe on the end of the wrench. This would allow more than one person to tighten joints. The result was a pipe collar showing on the outside of the pipe indicating a connection every twenty feet of pipeline. When the pipeline was recovered in Oklahoma, the pipe often disconnected during attempts to pick up the pipe from the ditch.

Around the late 1920’s, a stronger and simpler jointing method was introduced into pipeline industry. Acetylene welds were strong enough to keep the needed pressure on the pipeline for low-pressure crude transportation, though they were not as strong as the wall of the pipe itself. Acetylene welds eliminated the need for two or three men manhandling large pipe wrenches and chain tongs. When the pipeline was sent from Oklahoma to the Permian Basin of Texas to be re installed, the old collars and threads were cut off and beveled in order to facilitate the new acetylene weld jointing technique. The line was then re-laid in 1928 in Crane, Ward, and Winkler Counties in Texas. This pipeline later went through a succession of three owners for various reasons over time and was purchased for salvage purposes in 2007. The fields and wells this pipe was intended to service had been depleted, and the line was no longer viable as a pipeline in that particular location. The salvage or pipeline recovery team proceeded to remove the pipeline and the company’s marketing department shortly found an application for the pipeline. It was found that despite a little wear, the pipeline had the qualities of good Grade B steel. The thickness of the wall of the pipe was intact and had very little corrosion. It was found to be suitable for transport of slurry from a copper mine to the disposal site nearby, but away from the mine. The Mexican company that owns the mine expects to use the slurry line for as long as the mine is in operation.

An additional 30-mile section of this line was recovered and shipped to Vietnam to be used as a water transportation pipeline near what is now Ho Chi Minh City. It will probably be used there for another forty years.

This steel pipeline that was manufactured at least 89 years ago has been through 4 incarnations. Eventually when the copper mine is depleted, this pipe will be recycled once again until one day it will end up as scrap to be molded into plate, sheet, and coils for another round of uses.

The pipe is simply steel in tubular form.

Rewards for Reuse

If these applications are noteworthy then the pipeline industry might think in terms of rehabilitation of this steel for their own use. The pipeline recovery industry resells into the structural market for the most part, but I believe this is under using a valuable asset.

In this era of high commodity costs, it seems imprudent and wasteful to not rehabilitate pipeline through recovery and recycling. The cost of new 8 5/8″ diameter steel pipe to go into a pipeline can cost up to $25 per foot. That same size and grade can be excavated for less than a third of that cost. Why would a company not remove a pipeline that has outlasted its usefulness in one location and move it to another? Probably ignorance of the opportunity and inexperienced personnel is the reason. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. engineer to buy off the shelf or according to what the tubular salesman advises.

In 2008, our company took up a 6 5/8″ diameter line in Central Louisiana that had been in gas service for nine years. The field depleted and the landowner who was using the land for timber wanted the pipeline removed so as to use the right of way to plant more trees. We took up the line, transported it to the CPS yard in Houston where workers cleaned the paraffin out of the interior of the pipe, straighten where needed and removed the fusion bond epoxy coating off of the exterior. We then beveled the ends and sent the pipe on to a recoating yard and it is now in service as a gas transmission line in Oklahoma. Even with all of these steps, the customer saved thirty per cent off of new pipe prices.

An 8 5/8″ diameter pipeline was re laid in during the 1950’s in the Panhandle of Texas near Amarillo. The pipe was of A.O. Smith manufacture and used one of the first electric weld type construction before today’s ERW type construction. We don’t know where the pipe came from originally, but it was in service until five years ago in its second life. The coating is well bonded, and the pipe is in excellent condition. It has been maintained in an ideal manner. A customer has contacted us regarding taking up the pipe in such a way that we do not damage the coating or at least only minimal damage. We estimate fifteen per cent damage to coating, and it is determined that that amount can be economically replaced in the field with patches. We will take up the pipe in sixty foot sections to decrease the number of welds and cut back on the trucking expense. The customer plans to relay the line for low pressure natural gas service in the Permian Basin area of Texas.

Still another Texas gas producer and pipeline company has made it a company policy to purchase idled or abandoned lines from others for the purpose of take up and removal to another location in their own system. On four occasions in the past three years, the company has excavated, 8″, 6″ and 12″ line pipe from dormant systems, rehabilitated the pipe, and re laid the pipe in a more economically advantageous area.

Cost Savings Incentives

A most compelling reason for rehabilitation of a pipeline is to get rid of the costs of keeping it in the ground. Few companies are aware of the real costs associated with maintaining an idled pipeline. There are miles of pipeline that are idle and will never be used again, but are regularly patrolled by personnel kept on the payroll and dedicated to that specific task. Others companies pay contract agents even greater sums to answer “One Calls” or DOT calls for the purpose of flagging lines for construction or other identification purposes.

If the company still maintains these rights of way via mowing and general signage upkeep, the costs can be extraordinary. In many states there are judicial districts that assign ad valorem taxes, school taxes, county taxes, and state taxes to these properties. In most operations, people are not aware of these costs, as it does not fall into their job description. The many taxes involved go unquestioned and are paid accordingly. In addition, the incidental pipeline relocation expenses due to highway and subdivision expansion seem to be passed off as necessary costs of doing business.

Regulatory Incentives

A long standing practice of pipeline companies has been “in place abandonment”. It is simply a way of reducing responsibility for maintenance and care, taxes, and upkeep while still maintaining ownership of idled pipelines. While this is a positive practice for pipeline operators, federal and state lawmakers and regulators are seeking to end the practice and clearly define the requirements for abandoning or idling these out of use pipelines. Idled pipelines pose potential hazards to landowners and land users. New developments in congested areas often face relocation and identification issues. An even bigger issue is the awareness of rights by landowners who own property where lines are located.

In the future, pipeline companies will be required to remove pipelines if they are termed “abandoned” or if they are idled and show “intent to abandon” due to cessation of usage, lack of maintenance, removal of signage, failure to pay or reducing taxes due to lack of use, etc. At the very least, companies will be required to identify dormant pipeline inventory and obtain permission from landowners prior to abandonment procedures of any sort.

It is not known when new regulations will be instituted on the federal level, however, at least one Texas legislator from Houston and another from the Fort Worth (Barnett Shale) area will introduce a bill in the next session of the legislature requiring pipeline operators to notify landowners prior to abandonment and obtain permission from the affected landowners.

Procedures for Removal

Reuse of pipelines relies on good maintenance of the line while in the ground and good care during removal. There is an art to the excavation process or at the very least; the work should be performed by competent and experienced pipeline recovery personnel.

Taking up a pipeline uses much the same procedures as laying it. A specially equipped track hoe is used with a custom shoe attached instead of forks on the hoe to excavate the pipe. Generally, this “shoe” is fashioned to fit the diameter of the pipe without sharp edges on the inside in order to keep from dinging or damaging the exterior of the pipe. This is probably the key part of the entire process. A good hoe operator with the right shoe can unearth good pipe while a poor or inexperienced pipeline excavator can turn the pipe into total junk.

Occasionally a side boom can be used to lift the pipe out of the ditch, but more often the pipe is cut in 100 to 200 foot sections and dragged out of the ditch by a dozer. Dragging out too long a length will cause the pipe to bow or bend. After the pipe is removed, a dozer is used to backfill the excavation ditch and dress up the right of way. A cutter cuts the pipe at the connections in 20, 30, 40, or 60 foot intervals depending on where the welds exist. The best way is to cut the pipe in 40 to 45 foot sections as most truck trailers can carry these lengths. The cutting can be done by torch or by saw depending on the preferences of the supervisor as well as the fire hazards that might be involved. A front-end loader can be utilized to load the pipe on trucks for transport. Alternatively, special forks can be mounted on the track hoe to load the trucks instead of having to engage a front-end loader on location. Sometimes the loader is not efficient due to its rubber tires. Tracks work best on the right of way. Most pipelines can be removed with two or three pieces of equipment per crew with proper supervision and competent personnel.

Pipe Rehabilitation

Most pipelines have some sort of coating. If proper procedures are undertaken, the coatings can be removed on location or the removed pipeline can be transported to a cleaning yard. Responsible recovery crews are environmentally certified and educated to handle coating waste in case the coating turns out to be hazardous.

After the coating is removed, the pipe is checked for bends, bows, dents, and dings. Roundness and straightness is also to be ascertained. Pipe should be separated at this stage to determine the better pipe that might be ready to ship to a customer or that might need additional attention. No matter how competent an operator might be, damages will occur, and externally the pipe can be dented or dinged with the track hoe forks or shoe during the removal process.

Sometimes the pipe could be bowed intentionally when laying and need to be straightened. Customers want round and straight pipe, and it is much more economical to load and transport straight pipe. Beveling of each end where the pipe was cut during removal is necessary if the pipe is to be re used as line pipe. Some pipeline recovery crews may be able to rehabilitate excavated pipelines at the removal site by using portable de-denters, pipe straighteners, beveling machines. It is best to reduce the trucking and handling of the pipe as much as possible and perform pipe rehabilitation on-site. Otherwise, there are pipe service yards in various parts of the country that have the expertise and equipment to handle most jobs. If the pipe coating has not been severely damaged beyond repair, the pipe will go directly to a coating facility or threading facilities depending on the intended use for the excavated pipe.

Landowner Relations and Right of Way Agents

Perhaps the most significant part of the process is the care and handling of the landowner on whose property you are going across while retrieving the pipe. A landowner is in a position to help greatly or deal a lot of misery. By the terms of most right of way contracts, the pipeline owner has the right to remove, repair, ingress, egress, and so forth; however, no landowner wants you on their property in any way for any reason. It is important that a skilled, experienced right of way agent be on the job. Today’s farmers, ranchers, and landowners are sophisticated and smart, and a good negotiator can save a lot of heartache. These are not the same people who sold the right of way fifty years ago for a dollar a rod. They have Blackberries and can Google an answer as fast as your teenager.

The best method when you own the easement is to return the right of way back to the landowner at your expense. This is music to the property owners’ ears, and in return, they will probably bring coffee to the job site and open the gates for you while you pass through. Seriously, I have found this to be the best method for dealing with landowners. They would like to have clear unencumbered title to their property and to “clear the title at the courthouse” will generally provide smiles. The gift of a joint or two of pipe along the way for culvert use to a farmer or rancher always promotes good relations. Try to avoid the use of money to get the job done. When the exchange of dollars comes into the picture, then it becomes the basis for everything, and it is only a question of how much you are going to pay. Again, that is why a good right of way agent is important.

Marketing the Product

The uses for tubular forms of steel are many. Hundreds of thousands of tons annually go to the piling markets to shore up anything that needs to be strengthened. For example, anything that needs additional support along shorelines, piers for buildings, and bridge supports all utilize tubular steel derived from rehabilitated pipeline. Millions of tons went to China in the Eighties and Nineties for use in the foundations of their extensive highway network.

There are more than 150 companies that resell secondary and rehabilitated line pipe to the ultimate customer. Each of these entities specializes in their local market or in the area of specialization they have chosen. There is a group of companies that only sell 16″, 18″, or 20″ pipe for casing oil and gas well drilling contractors setting pipe in “mouse holes” or “rat holes”. This application alone consumes more than 25,000 feet per month of these sizes in the U. S.

Another 150,000 feet per month of 8 5/8″ and 10 3/4″ line pipe are used each month in surface casing applications for oil and gas operators. Surface casing protects shallow water sands in initial drilling operations onshore. There are companies that sell product to piling contractors and others that sell pipe for culvert for roads and bridges. Still more is used in farm and ranch operations for corrals and cattle guards at gates. Other users need center posts and columns for fences, barns and other buildings. Flag poles, bridge, and guardrail applications consume thousands of tons annually. Our company recently shipped 4800 linear feet of 80 year old pipe to a zoo to be used as a retaining wall to protect elephants in their habitat. Hundreds of other uses exist for steel in tubular form. Unless prices get exceedingly high, scrap is the last resort for pipeline recovery applications.

Conclusion

Much more could be written regarding the salvage or recovery of pipelines. The process for recovery, the coping with EPA and OSHA, different weights, grades and diameters of pipe could be covered in much more detail. In addition, there are methods and procedures for rehabilitation of pipe in service yards as well as on site or portable operations and which is best. Pipelines can be recovered by companies on a contract or custom basis or they can be sold “as is where is” to recovery operators.

For additional information on this subject visit the author’s website at www.pipelineequities.com or email a request for a complimentary copy of the Pipeline Recovery Manual to davidhowell@pipelineequities.com.