China faces new risk: Attacks on pipelines

By Xin Dingding, Li Jing and Wan Zhihong (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-06 07:11
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As oil industry expands, nation urged to protect energy resource

As oil and gas pipelines are quickly extended in China to meet soaring fuel demands, the nation will face increasing threats to its environment, territorial safety and energy security, experts said.

Efforts were urged recently by energy experts for the nation to protect and strengthen the pipelines in light of the Dec 30 discovery of diesel fuel leakage into a tributary of the Yellow River.

The leak has spread downstream into Shanxi and Henan provinces and contaminated the drinking water of many local residents.

"It is an accident but the hazards of oil and natural gas leaks exist, including pipe explosions and pollutions to water, air and soil," said Han Xiaoping, chief information officer of, a leading energy website in China.

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China now has around 50,000 km of oil and gas pipelines, and will build 40,000 km of pipelines in the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-15), according to China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), the country's largest oil and gas producer.

And pipelines will remain a major means of oil transport because they are "safer, more economical and convenient", he said.

But new problems have arisen in recent years threatening the safety of pipelines.

Rapid urbanization has resulted in the reckless construction of buildings and roads within the pipelines' buffer zones in recent years, said Cao Kangtai, director of Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council.

Rampant theft of oil and gas through illegal siphoning is also a major threat, he said.

Thieves illegally drilled into the CNPC's pipelines 18,382 times from 2002 to 2006, causing the company a loss of more than 500 million yuan ($72 million), according to CNPC.

Oil theft is now a major cause of oil spills, said Liu Zheng, a professor from Tsinghua University, to China Daily.

"Those who steal the oil from pipelines never think about the consequences on a large area of soil surrounding the pipeline," said Liu.

In China, most oil pipelines are built near farmland where oil spills usually damage land and crops. Toxic substances contained in oil tend to accumulate in plants and animals, which consequentially threaten the health of humans who consume the polluted plants, he said.

Moreover, oil pipelines could be a target for terrorists.

Li Wei, director of the center for counterterrorism studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said that attempts to attack energy production and transportation infrastructure by creating explosions have been previously made in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and South America.

"Though terrorists are more likely to aim at causing a large number of casualties instead of attacking pipelines in China, there is still a possibility," Li said.

"Protecting oil and gas pipelines should be included in the national contingency plan, and efforts should be strengthened to monitor the safety along pipelines," Li said.

A draft law to "protect oil and gas pipelines, maintain transportation safety and public safety and safeguard the national resource supply" was sent to the National People's Congress Standing Committee for a first reading in October.

And security measures such as cameras have also been installed every few kilometers along pipelines, Han said.

"But full monitoring is difficult to achieve on pipelines laid outside of China's territory," he said.

"Once a pipeline, such as the gas pipeline between China and Turkmenistan, is attacked outside of China, a large area in China could suffer a shortage of natural gas, since it does not have enough on reserve," Han said.

China is now the world's second largest oil importer and a major consumer of natural gas.

Official statistics show that China imported nearly 200 million tons of crude oil last year. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said 64.5 percent of the country's oil consumption was likely to be met by imports in 2020.

China also has set a target of raising the proportion of natural gas in its total energy consumption to 5.3 percent in 2010 from 2.8 percent in 2005. The targeted output of the fuel in 2010 is 90 billion cu m.