why are pipelines bad for the environment

Why Are Pipelines Bad for the Environment?

Last Updated on August 21, 2023 by Annie Baldwin

Pipelines can cause pollution and ecological damage.

Oil spills, habitat loss, and contamination are just some of the ways pipelines negatively affect the environment.

This article explores the environmental risks of pipelines and why they are concerning.

Why Are Pipelines Bad for the Environment?

Why Are Pipelines Bad for the Environment?

Pipelines pose substantial risks to ecosystems and communities.

Their expansion should be restricted due to the numerous negative impacts.

Key Points

  • Pipelines can leak and rupture, spilling oil into habitats and aquatic ecosystems.
  • Constructing pipelines contributes to deforestation, carbon emissions, and landscape degradation.
  • The pollution and habitat destruction caused by pipelines can harm wildlife populations.

How Do Oil Spills from Pipelines Harm Wildlife and Habitats?

Spills from pipelines flowing over or near rivers and streams spread oil into connected waterways, wetlands, and groundwater.

For example, a pipeline leak in 2000 spilled over 250,000 gallons of oil into the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Pennsylvania.

The oil coated around 400 migratory birds and killed about 10% of the duck population that lived there.

Fish and amphibians that breathed contaminated water also died.

Oil spills suffocate wildlife and poison aquatic food chains.

Spilled oil persists in habitats like marshes for years, slowly breaking down through weathering and degradation.

The effects on plants and animals can last much longer than the visible oil itself.

What Are the Dangers of Water Pollution from Pipelines?

Pipelines crossing rivers, streams, and aquifers put drinking water at risk.

Oil seeping into groundwater is extremely difficult to clean up and can make water unsafe.

The Yellowstone River has suffered repeated spills from an oil pipeline running beneath it.

In 2015, a leak released 50,000 gallons of oil, coating the riverbank for miles.

The benzene and other toxins contaminated the river and shoreline.

Pipeline failures near bodies of water can change chemical compositions, temperatures, and oxygen levels, degrading water quality.

Fish populations and aquatic plants suffer the impacts.

It takes years for polluted waters to recover.

How Do Pipelines Impact Climate Change and Carbon Emissions?

Extracting and burning more fossil fuels enabled by pipelines worsens climate change.

The Keystone XL pipeline expansion projected emissions equal to 6 million gas-powered cars a year.

Constructing pipelines also fuels climate change through deforestation from clearing trees for infrastructure.

And transporting materials to build pipelines emits greenhouse gases.

As pipelines expand to unlock more oil and gas reserves, they facilitate increasing carbon emissions.

This contradicts climate goals to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

More pipelines mean more emissions.

Can Pipeline Construction Harm Plants and Wildlife?

Yes, building pipelines often entails clearing vegetation, digging trenches, and disturbing land.

Construction vehicles compact soil and frighten away wildlife.

The Dakota Access pipeline required cutting down forests and grading land along its 1,200-mile route.

The work impacted bat caves, migratory paths, native prairies, and 50 streams.

Pipeline projects directly destroy habitats and disrupt connections between ecosystems.

The impacts can ripple through food webs.

Rare species struggle to recover from disturbances.

How Do Landscape Changes from Pipelines Increase Erosion?

Constructing pipelines leaves the land vulnerable to erosion, especially on slopes and wetlands.

Removing stabilizing vegetation decreases absorption.

Exposed soil washes away, muddying streams.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline in Appalachia crosses over 1,000 water bodies.

Construction triggered multiple incidents of runoff-related pollution downstream.

Access roads, equipment storage yards, and other infrastructure related to pipelines also contribute to erosion issues.

Soil loss and sedimentation throw ecosystems off balance.

Can Pipelines Increase Risk of Natural Disaster Impacts?

Yes, pipelines can make communities more vulnerable to disasters like flooding.

Deforestation from pipeline corridors reduces protection from storm surges.

In 2005, oil tanks damaged by Hurricane Katrina leaked over 8 million gallons of oil across Louisiana and Mississippi.

Flood debris broke pipelines, contaminating neighborhoods.

Wetlands provide natural buffers against storms and floods.

But pipelines disturb these protective ecosystems through dredging, filling, and tree clearing.

This increases local risks.

Do Pipeline Accidents Present Health Dangers Beyond Pollution?

Yes, pipeline ruptures can cause explosions, intensely hot fires, and the release of toxic gases.

A 1999 gasoline pipeline explosion in Washington state burned over a mile of creek, killing two children and one adult.

The gases released by a pipeline accident vary based on what is flowing through the line.

But they may include toxic hydrogen sulfide, explosive hydrocarbon fumes, and hazardous air pollutants.

Exposure to chemicals from a pipeline spill can cause short-term issues like headaches, dizziness, nausea, and long-term effects including neurological damage.

Why Are Some Groups Concerned Pipelines Threaten Indigenous Cultures?

Some pipelines, like Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, cross sacred native lands.

Construction destroys burial grounds and culturally important sites.

Beyond physical disruption, pipelines found to infringe on treaty rights threaten Indigenous practices, spirituality, and relationships to ancestral lands tied to environmental stewardship.

Re-routing pipelines around tribal lands or blocking projects found to violate Indigenous rights can help address these cultural concerns over pipelines.

Respecting tribes as stakeholders is important.

Could Pipeline Expansion Worsen Environmental Injustice?

Possibly. Low-income and marginalized communities are more likely to live near pipelines and bear more risks.

Yet they have less power to stop projects.

An analysis of census data showed higher poverty rates in counties with more pipeline mileage.

Those facing poverty also lived closer to pipelines than wealthier residents.

Energy companies also disproportionately target minority Native American groups when planning infrastructure.

This raises ethical concerns over fairness and equity in decision-making.

In Summary

Pipelines can pollute water supplies, worsen climate change, harm wildlife, and pose risks to communities.

They disrupt environments in both obvious and subtle ways. Understanding these impacts helps inform decisions about energy needs versus ecological concerns.

While pipelines create risks, clear regulations, careful monitoring, and strict safety protocols can reduce hazards.

But the only way to eliminate pipeline risks is to restrict continued expansion and reduce fossil fuel reliance.

Transitioning to cleaner energy offers a long-term solution.


How Long Can Oil and Chemical Pollution from a Pipeline Spill Persist in the Environment?

Spilled oil and chemicals can persist in ecosystems for years through slow weathering and degradation of the contaminants. The impacts on habitats and species last much longer than the visible pollution itself.

Do Pipelines Mostly Impact Aquatic Ecosystems Like Rivers and Marshes?

No, pipelines also degrade terrestrial habitats through right-of-way construction, access roads, tree clearing, and soil compaction. Forests, prairies, mountainsides, and deserts are all at risk.

Can Non-Oil Pipelines Also Be Harmful If They Leak?

Yes, pipelines carrying natural gas and other substances can pollute soil and waterways if they leak. They also enable fossil fuel expansion which worsens climate change and air pollution.

What Kinds of Wildlife Are Most Vulnerable to Pipeline Spills?

Aquatic life like fish, amphibians, and birds are especially vulnerable when oil spills into their habitats from a pipeline leak near water. But all wildlife is at risk from pollution and habitat loss.

GreenChiCafe is passionate about the environment and our natural world. Please check out our website for more great content on important ecological topics.

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