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The Underground Pipeline Empire

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The Chinese built the first known pipeline about one thousand years ago, using bamboo pipes to carry natural gas to use for various purposes including evaporating salt brine. One of the next recorded uses of pipes was a Roman gravity water supply system of almost four hundred miles that brought water over aqueducts and through pipes to Rome. Pumps were used in 1582 to propel London's water supply through that large city. Most early pipes were of wooden construction, and doubtless there was considerable leakage at joints due to rot and ground settling. Today cities throughout the world use metal and concrete pipes to bring water from distant points and distribute it to a wide variety of users.

As growing cities must reach out farther and farther to tap new water sources, pipelines become longer and longer. The huge pipeline that brings Colorado River water all the way to Los Angeles is a good example.

Pipelines provide the cheapest and most efficient method of overland transportation. Because they are laid mostly underground, there is little wear and tear on the pipes. They are protected not only from the elements but also from vandalism. The power sources, pumps, and compressors are stationary, and best of all, piping is free of the unprofitable.

Although transporting gas and petroleum is our chief interest here, note should be made of job opportunities in those cities and towns that must obtain water from outside sources and distribute it. Inquire at your local water department about possible employment opportunities.

"Return trip" required of railroad cars, trucks, and ships. Pipelines do not require handling, containers, terminals, or the need to keep extra vehicles or boats on hand to cover a breakdown or other emergency.


The early discovery and history of natural gas is as mysterious as the three-thousand-year-old account of the Greek oracle at Delphi, where the steady burning fire caused by natural gas escaping from rock lent credibility to the messages received from the gods. Subsequently in many parts of the world, gas was similarly set afire as it seeped from cracks in rock, and the flames' significance was interpreted one way or another according to local beliefs.

In Colonial America many knew of such fires, and rumor even had it that at one time George Washington owned land that had "a burning spring." Since wood and water power were the principal energy sources, no one saw any utility in this phenomenon until 1820, when William Hart drilled down twenty-seven feet next to a rock crack venting gas. He hoped to increase the amount of vapor by widening the hole. His idea was so successful that he managed to pipe the gas to adjacent homes and stores. Thus Fredonia, New York, a small town near Buffalo, became the first village lit by gas, and its fame became so great that on his second American tour, the Marquis de Lafayette visited the hamlet to see this wonder.

In 1870 gas first flowed from Fredonia through a twelve and one-half inch wooden pipeline to Rochester. Actually the inside diameter was only eight and one-half inches, which encouraged pipeline designers to devise a two-inch-diameter iron pipe that was laid from a wellhead in Titusville, Pennsylvania, to transport gas to buyers some 5.5 miles out of town.

During the following two decades, small companies started to ship gas to numerous industries in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia using eight-inch wrought-iron pipe capable of withstanding eighty pounds per-square-inch pressure. Soon a long-distance delivery system began operating in 1891 as two parallel lines sent gas 120 miles from northern Indiana to Chicago. Elsewhere in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, numerous short distribution companies appeared, and by 1920 new markets were opened thanks to the seamless, electrically welded pipes of greater length and strength. Thus gas could be sent faster and in larger quantities over greater distances than ever before. Today one of the longest is the pipeline that extends 4,000 miles from western Siberia to several European countries.

The owner of a gas pipeline is a marketing concern, buying gas from producers at the wellheads and selling it to the industry and local utilities, which in turn distribute it to schools, hospitals, businesses, and residential users. During the 1970s gas pipeline operators worried about providing adequate quantities for their customers and being able to meet demands for gas, especially after the Arab countries shut off the oil supply.

The 1980s brought different problems. The pipeline companies had adequate supplies of gas to draw on, but there was fierce competition with oil and coal suppliers. Furthermore, in 1986 Congress deregulated federal rules that had formerly guaranteed companies a certain rate of return. Finally, some of the gas companies had numerous long-term contracts requiring them to sell gas at a loss because costs of transporting it had risen since the agreements were signed. This was not true of the entire industry, however, and some companies were making a profit.

The 1986 deregulation started a revolution in the natural-gas pipeline industry. At first large steel plants, which were major gas customers, were able to make their own price agreements with suppliers. In 1993 pipeline companies had to make their lines available to competing gas suppliers through leasing arrangements. Thus, instead of having to buy their gas from the local utility company that had installed the pipes leading to homes and businesses, customers could purchase it from other gas marketers, who might offer lower rates, and use the existing gas lines that were originally laid by the local utility.

Groups of residential customers will be able to choose any gas marketer they want, which will force the utility now serving them to reduce its rates to meet the new competition. The industry is joining the electric power and telephone companies, which have also been forced to lease their electric lines and phone cables to competitors. Instead of enjoying a monopoly as they have since they started in business, local utilities will face competition, and this will result in significant savings for the public as well as business and industry.
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