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Steinberg: Pipelines are everywhere

Giant oil storage tanks at the Patoka oil tank farm

The Patoka oil tank farm comprises more than 50 giant storage tanks. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

PATOKA, Ill. — Crude oil comes out of the ground hot, then stays warm for weeks as it travels at a casual walking pace — about 3 miles an hour — through the nation’s 2.5 million miles of oil pipeline, moving from well to refinery.

The drama over one stretch of one pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota caught the nation’s attention for months, until it ended in victory — for the protesters, for now — last week when the Army Corps of Engineers said it would not grant a right of way for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River near the Sioux land.

But focus on the episode ignores a greater truth — that our nation, which consumes more oil than any other, depends on these pipelines to slake its bottomless thirst. The Dakota Access Pipeline cost $3 billion and will be finished sometime next year, if not passing near the Sioux land, then passing by somewhere. It’s nearly 90 percent complete now.

Trace its route. The Dakota Access Pipeline, a 30-inch carbon-steel tube, begins in the oil fields of North Dakota, heads southeast for 1,172 miles, and ends here, in downstate Illinois, where its final stretch was laid last summer. It’s a muddy field, awaiting re-planting, next to land owned by Energy Transfer, the consortium building the disputed pipeline, piled with green pipe that will be used to construct the final 10 percent.

Buried pipeline marker -- the numerals are intended to be read by low-flying aircraft, which trace the line route, looking for evidence of leaks.

Buried pipeline marker — the numerals are intended to be read by low-flying aircraft, which trace the line route, looking for evidence of leaks. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

It’s not the only pipeline in the world. Here it is joined by pipelines arriving from New Orleans, from Pontiac, Michigan, from Owensboro, Kentucky, from Alberta, Canada via the Keystone Pipeline, also controversial. More than a dozen separate lines converge around Patoka, running underground, about 4 feet deep along U.S. 51 then turning down “pipeline alley” to feed what is known as the Patoka Oil Tank Farm. More than 50 enormous white oil tanks, each holding about 5 million gallons, or what the U.S. consumes every nine minutes. Various groupings of tanks are owned by the world’s major oil companies: Exxon/Mobil, Marathon, BP.

Patoka — the oil farm is actually outside the village, in Patoka Township — is second in size only to the oil facility at Cushing, Oklahoma.

Why is it here, in farm country, 256 miles south of Chicago?

OPINION

“If you draw a line from Chicago to the Gulf Coast — Houston, Port Arthur, Baton Rouge — that line goes through Patoka, Illinois,” said John Moody, a spokesman for the Association of Oil Pipelines. “Then start in Cushing, Oklahoma, and draw a line across to Cleveland and Detroit and central Ohio, and that line goes through Patoka. Patoka is a crossroads for energy delivery.”

Oil was discovered in Illinois in the late 1930s — you can still see modest pumps in farmers’ fields working small wells — and there were oil companies here.

“The best answer would be an accidental geographical criss-cross,” is how Jeff Foltz puts it. He is the founder of Foltz Welding, which lays pipeline in 16 states. “As one pipeline company was here, it attracted other companies, when they were laying lines to pass through here so they could do business with each other, trading oil.”

Jeff Foltz founded Foltz Welding in 1990.

Jeff Foltz founded Foltz Welding in 1990. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Storage is an important part of the oil business, first because while delivery can be sporadic — tankers must arrive from the other end of the world, wells go dry, protesters block construction of nearly completed pipelines — refineries need to be fed continuously. Storage also blunts swings in oil prices.

While the car-driving public paradoxically tends to root for the underdog protesters, oil has to get across the country somehow. Here in Patoka the protests are viewed with muted puzzlement.

“Where do I start?” said Jeff Lauritzen, operations manager at Foltz Welding, sitting in a conference room decorated with photos of oil tanks.

The protests pivot on safety. Pipelines carry corrosive, heavy oil — a large pipe filled with crude weighs a thousand pounds a foot. Pipelines are regularly checked in a variety of ways — inspected from the air, by low-flying planes looking for discoloration that could indicate a leak, or for construction encroaching where it shouldn’t. Devices known as “smart pigs” — bundles of sensors detecting corrosion and leaks — are shot through the pipes (named “pigs” for the squealing sound the devices made when passing through pipes).

Despite this, pipelines still fail — sometimes spectacularly — gushing thousands of gallons of oil into the surroundings.

“That’s just part of the business,” said Lauritzen. “All these companies are prepared to react and respond [to leaks].” He compared the situations to airplane travel: airplanes are far safer than cars, but when an airplane crashes, it gets attention. Pipelines are far safer and cheaper than transporting oil by train tanks or trucks. But few protest new railroad tracks.

“Going back to the protesters, I think it’s just a shame that our political people have got involved in all the wrong ways,” Lauritzen said. “Energy Transfer has done everything properly to secure that right of way. It’s just too bad it’s gotten this far. . . . All the misinterpretation that the media’s putting out there. They’re not seeing both sides. They’re just seeing the protesters’ side. Railroad cars are always turning over, blowing up. But you never hear that.”

“This is my life. I love what I’m doing,” said Foltz. “It’s a moneymaker for a lot of small towns. A lot of unique people out here that do this work every day. It’s very high risk, you have to have a lot of talent to do this work. It’s a very, very safe transportation system. People drive over it and pass by it and never realize it’s here because the only thing that sticks up is a right-of-way marking sign that nobody pays any attention to on the road. But the pipelines are everywhere.”
 

 

Workers at Foltz Welding prepare a pipe for installation.

Workers at Foltz Welding prepare a pipe for installation. A bad weld can lead to a leak later on. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times