GIS right tool for pipelines in Marcellus Shale Play

November 2, 2012

Editor's note: Wheeling native Roger Cottrell is a principal at Cheat Canyon Management Services in Morgantown, W.Va., and an expert in geographic information systems and project management.

Natural gas production is well under way in the Marcellus Shale Play. Wells are sitting idle waiting for the midstream infrastructure to get put in place. This means that pipeline construction is in full swing in West Virginia. Pipelines, like transmission lines, require a great deal of planning prior to being placed. Planners and engineers must consider many variables prior to starting construction. Considerations must be made with regard to the existing natural and man-made environments to protect natural resources, maintain existing infrastructure and, most importantly, protect human life and personal property. Pipeline development is a complex operation that requires responsible planning and design, sufficient regulation and proper long-term monitoring. Geographic information systems (GIS) tools are in integral part of all phases of natural gas pipeline development.

Before I discuss why GIS in so critical to pipelines, let me summarize a typical pipeline planning process. There are literally hundreds of thousands of miles of existing petroleum pipelines running zig zag across the United States. This complex pipeline system consists of trunk lines and feeder lines. Trunk lines are interstate pipelines that move products to and from wells, refineries and the market. Feeder lines supply raw product from wells to the trunk lines that eventually reach refineries and other processing plants. These feeder lines are popping up all over North Central West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania. Interstate pipelines are regulated by the federal government, and require a great deal of impact analysis prior to constructing what the industry calls a loop. Companies wishing to construct a new loop must submit an environmental impact statement to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This report contains a plethora of information that illustrates the loop's effect on natural and man-made environments. GIS, computer aided drafting and design (CADD), land survey, global positioning systems (GPS) and aerial photography play a major role in collecting and analyzing data for this report. Construction plans are assembled in CADD using survey, GPS and aerial photography. This data is then converted into a GIS to allow analysts to perform an operation call "dynamic segmentation" on the pipeline route. Field crews led by biologists and engineers use GPS to collect wetland boundaries, surface water crossings, water intakes, other pipeline crossings, endangered species, and other critical infrastructure.

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Once in the GIS, the analyst performs detailed and accurate analysis to determine proximity of the proposed loop to all of these features and analyzes the soil types along the route. The output of this analysis is a series of printed maps highlighting the intersection of the proposed loop to these features and a series of tables with this information containing acreage of wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas potentially effected, distance from the pipeline to the features, number of surface water crossings, and proximity to urban areas. The report is then sent to FERC for review and approval.This close regulatory scrutiny allows for companies to determine the best route for the new pipeline that provides the least negative impact to natural and man-made environments.

To my knowledge, this detailed process is not currently part of the state regulatory process. Intrastate pipelines are regulated by state agencies. In West Virginia, the Public Service Commission of West Virginia regulates pipelines.

However, according to an article in the Wheeling Intelligencer dated April 1, 2012, this agency may or may not know where all of the pipeline construction is occurring.

This is troublesome because we have the technology to produce sound analysis on pipeline construction and the natural gas companies developing these lines have the money to pay for proper planning.

GIS and associated spatial technologies are available to provide sound planning for safe and environmentally friendly natural gas pipelines in West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. Let's all work toward pressuring public agencies and private companies to develop the Marcellus Shale in a responsible manner.



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