Earning a “social license to operate” is an increasingly important part of pipeline planning, route selection, construction and operation these days. Without the agreement or support of people affected by the project – or, who perceive that they are – it may be that approval hearings get extended, political and regulatory support slips, costs go up and timelines stretch.
Companies that gain support of the public and other stakeholders, as well as regulatory authorities and political leaders, have an edge in the marketplace in completing projects on time and on budget. This is particularly vital with shale-extracted gas, much of which stays locked in, unable to reach the market, due to difficulties in pipeline construction.
Pipeline route selection has always involved tradeoffs – balancing cost, environmental impact, social impact, geotechnical risk, possibility of exposure due to watercourse scouring and other factors. To anyone balancing a wide range of considerations to choose an optimal route, it may seem that there’s no “best” route, only a “least bad.”
Recent developments in information technology can help. These include:
• The growing popularity and affordability of high-speed computer systems that can crunch through numerous scenarios with a wide range of assumptions to find an optimal route
• Better computer programs and models, able to absorb large data sets as diverse as topography, rare-species habitat, caribou migration routes, proximity to urban areas and existing rights-of-way.
• The explosion of new public and commercially available data such as low-cost, detailed satellite imagery that reduces chances of missing critical factors in information-gathering. Also, recent innovations in analytical techniques for integrating and mining these data sets for patterns and trends.
These developments can support more realistic, risk- and constraints-based pipeline routing designs, reducing chances that vital factors – such as a seismic fault line – do not suddenly come to light when the pipeline route is in detailed planning stages or during a meeting with stakeholders.
Developing that social license to operate is vital to the pipeline’s success. While it may take a long time to gain acceptance, one serious error can lose all that good will, and it is difficult and very costly to regain trust once it is lost.
Used correctly, route-planning software and advanced spatial analysis techniques can provide a wide range of benefits including the following:
Testing Far-Ranging Factors, Scenarios
Being able to quickly crunch a wide range of data allows planners to try multiple iterations of possible route scenarios, changing the weighting of factors to find the best choice for a corridor, given known constraints and opportunities. This providers planners with flexibility in meeting various design priorities – avoiding populated areas or choosing routes that minimize incremental disturbance by following existing rights-of-way wherever possible.
If avoiding new environmental impacts is of supreme importance, for example, this criterion can be weighted heavily in the model. This will result in a different result than if, perhaps, avoiding populated areas is made the prime consideration. Planners can factor in various repellants – such as a wetland – or attractants, such as land that has already been disturbed by construction.
Verifiable, Defensible Route Selection Criteria
Stakeholders may be suspicious of a pipeline builder who is promoting a specific route, if the reasons for that route are not made clear. Computerized modeling is transparent – the factors that influenced route selection – and the weight assigned to those factors, can be clearly indicated and explained. Route selection becomes more of a science than an art, and stakeholders can verify for themselves the reasons behind a choice of route.
Project proponents can use the decision-making factors that influenced the route choice to develop a rich narrative that provides the detailed explanation that can bring stakeholders onboard. They can understand the considerations that were made, the interests that were safeguarded and the concerns that were met in choosing from a variety of possible routes. They can also understand the trade-offs made in order to arrive at the recommended solution.
Planning Ahead To Solve Problems
Even if there is a wide range of possible routes, there are likely “pinch points” along the way at which the route choices narrow. This might involve a pass through a mountain range, a river crossing or tightly clustered residential development. Sometimes, there is no alternative to putting the pipeline through a specific place such as a valley, right-of-way or built-up community.
Often a desktop study early in the planning process can highlight such pinch points so that pipeline proponents can start to build relations with stakeholders in those areas. Building community relations and trust can be a slow process, and knowing well in advance where route choices are limited, helps make time to allow this to happen. The solution might include proposing the development of compensatory wildlife habitat or mitigation of the effects of pipeline construction.
Planners can consider a wide range of possible future scenarios to determine the possible effect on a pipeline. For example, if over the next few years there comes to be significant urban development close to the pipeline route, how would this affect the operator’s ability to power-up the line or otherwise increase capacity?
Good use of planning software can help the company understand how stakeholders will be affected by the pipeline in future so that the company can then take steps to preserve its social license to operate. Being able to consider future scenarios can provide reassurance to financial backers that their investment is being well-managed.
In a similar way, the improved planning tools are able to determine areas of potential risk, such as watercourse crossings where there is potential for flash flooding that may expose part of the pipeline, or make it vulnerable to damage from floating debris and rocks being moved along by the water.
The risk management process can include developing a “risk map” of the proposed pipeline route to determine where the company needs to place extra emphasis, possibly stepping up the frequency of inspections of that part of the line.
Another aspect of risk management involves helping the company understand how the proposed pipeline fits into its risk profile while developing ways to manage the risks so that they fit into the company’s culture.
Though route planning using advanced software tools may look different from previous planning methods involving pencil and paper, the reality is that the steps taken are the same as those planners have always used. There is the same need to balance factors, consider the tradeoffs, to arrive at the best-fit solution.
The difference lies in the number of scenarios used to find the optimal choice, and the transparency of the process that demonstrates the considerations made, that can help proponents develop a plan that convinces stakeholders their concerns are being understood and addressed.
Authors: Kevin Seel, Ph.D is project manager in the Calgary AB, Canada office of Golder Associates, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Curtis Campbell, M.Sc., is a principal and environmental planner in the Calgary AB, Canada office of Golder Associates, email@example.com.
Jay Norwood is Pipeline Design Practice Leader and Principal in the Walnut Creek CA office of Golder Associates, firstname.lastname@example.org.