“I have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” Theodore Roosevelt once said. He first visited the state in 1883, and seeing such natural wonders as the brilliant Painted Canyon formation in the west and the endless prairie fields in the east was a transformative experience that later inspired him, as the 26th president of the United States, to dedicate his administration to the preservation of the natural world.
Today, despite the Peace Garden State’s oil and gas boom, much of the splendor that Roosevelt encountered and felt moved by still exists there, and the more responsible companies in the region’s rapidly growing industry are working to keep it that way. Among them is Alliance Pipeline, an Alberta-based transmission business recently tasked with the construction of the Tioga Lateral Pipeline—its first lateral pipeline in the United States—across 80.1 miles of the state’s northern half.
The project gave the company the opportunity to prove its environmental and social-consciousness bona fides all over again for the people and places affected by the new line’s installation. “We’re part of the community, and we want to make sure our impact is as minimal as it can be,” senior project manager Bill Watts says.
Alliance first got involved with the project through an agreement with Hess, a company that was working to update its gas-processing plant in Tioga, North Dakota. As a transmission business, Alliance is exclusively concerned with moving natural gas from one location to another, and its main pipeline—in service since 2000—runs 2,311 miles from northeastern British Columbia to distributors in Chicago. The Tioga Lateral Pipeline offered Hess a way to get its product to market.
To begin work, Alliance first had to conceive, propose, and win approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the route of the pipeline from Tioga to the main line, which crosses over into the United States near Sherwood, North Dakota. In between are the Lostwood, Des Lacs, and Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuges, and Alliance had to take special care navigating around two and through one of them. The company also had to coordinate permitting with the various townships and counties it would be passing near and across, and it negotiated fees for damages with area farmers to compensate them for the farmland they would be prevented from using during the pipeline’s installation.
Watts joined the project as construction began in October 2012, and his and his team’s main goal was to conduct all work as carefully and considerately as possible. “We want to make sure that the land disturbed for construction purposes is returned to the same state as it was prior to construction,” Watts says. “That means that we salvage the topsoil, we bring it back, we make sure there’s no compaction in the subsoil.”
To do this, the construction team first sent out crews to establish a 75-foot-wide “right-of-way” for the pipeline. Starting at Tioga, personnel began stripping away top- and subsoil in order to dig an eventual trench through the middle of the right-of-way. The soils were then stored along the sides of the route so that they could later be put back in the proper order, and they were covered by mulch to keep them from blowing away during winter winds or washing away during spring rains.
The team then started stringing 12-inch-diameter steel pipe along the route, confining equipment and crews—of up to 300 people per day—to the right-of-way as semitrucks delivered 16 joints of pipe at a time to be bent and welded. North Dakota has a “knob and kettle” terrain consisting of shallow depressions and low hills that were formed millennia ago when glaciers traversed the land, so Alliance’s piping had to be shaped and arranged to conform to the slight changes in elevation. Following the welding, crews dug the actual trenches for the pipe, specialized tracked machines referred to as “side booms” helped lower the pieces into the ground, and, finally, more equipment helped backfill the trenches and return the topsoil.
The whole process was carried out continuously in assembly-line fashion each day, and crews completed roughly a mile to a mile and a half of the pipeline every 24 hours. The total 8,000 joints of pipe for the project also came precoated with fusion-bond epoxy, which prevents corrosion, and each installed section underwent hydrostatic testing, which essentially entailed filling the pipe with water to check for leaks and ensure that each section could withstand a pressure of at least 1.25 times that of the maximum operating pressure.
The biggest obstacles along the route were the three waterways the pipeline had to cross: the White Earth, Des Lacs, and Souris Rivers. The line had to go under each one, and though the White Earth was small enough to pose little challenge, the other two were significantly wider, requiring the Alliance team to employ a sophisticated horizontal-directional drill (HDD). The remote-controlled device dug 24-inch-wide tunnels beneath both rivers, the deepest and longest running 80 feet below the bottom of the Des Lacs for a little more than a mile. Once that was done, it was just a matter of pulling sections of pipe through each hole and linking them together. Crews were careful to maintain proper pressure in both HDDs, though, in order to avoid a release that could have tainted either of the waterways with bentonite drilling fluid.
A pair of Alliance-hired environmental inspectors and a compliance monitor appointed by the FERC were on hand throughout the construction process to ensure that the company adhered to the highest safety and environmental-preservation standards. Alliance had done research before submitting its proposal, and in addition to the typical ecological concerns, it determined that, because of the project’s many water crossings, there were two sensitive bird species it needed to watch for: the bald eagle and the piping plover. “Largely, that was mitigated by constructing in the late fall and wintertime, to be sure those species had migrated away,” Watts says.
Alliance completed the pipeline in September 2013, and it took five days to “commission” it, which Watts explains as, “You’re essentially energizing your systems. It’s when you bring natural gas into the line for the first time. … You’re testing your tubing to make sure all your instrumentation is correct and working.”
The commissioning was a success, and since then, Alliance has been following up all along the pipeline route, reseeding areas of native prairie and grassland and conducting surveys to ensure bald eagle and piping plover habitats haven’t been impacted. And, 95 percent of the farmland should already be usable again for the coming season, Watts says, adding, “We want the landowners and farmers to be using the land as they were using it prior to construction.”
In the wrong hands, natural gas can be a volatile substance, but Alliance’s extreme caution during construction and after helps prevent accidents and incidents along its lines. The company also encourages any nearby landowners to call in issues right away so that it can address them within 48 hours. And, by paying just as much attention to environmental concerns, Alliance is ensuring that the North Dakota landscape will continue to appear almost as untouched as when Roosevelt first laid eyes on it.
“Ultimately,” Watts says, “it’s our intent that, five years out, you wouldn’t know there’s a pipeline under there except for the pipeline marker signs.”