Slate's Explainer: Stealing Natural Gas from a Pipeline

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Russia and the Ukraine continue to argue over increased fuel prices. If Russia cuts off its natural gas supply to Ukraine, as it has threatened to do, things could get tense — Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains how to steal natural gas from a pipeline.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Europe is again getting deliveries of Russian natural gas today. The supply was disrupted over the weekend after a dispute between Russia and its neighbor, Ukraine. There's a crucial gas pipeline running through Ukraine delivering Russian gas to Europe. The dispute is not over, though. Among other things, Russia's warned Ukraine that it might be engaging in, quote, "unsanctioned removal of gas from the transit system." And that got the Explainer team at the online magazine Slate wondering: How do you steal fuel from a pipeline? Here's Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

In Ukraine's case, you can just open a valve and take it. Since Ukraine buys from Russia, it already has the infrastructure to tap into the pipeline of the Russian gas giant Gazprom. But you don't need to be a state-run company to steal fuel from a pipeline. In the first few months of 2004, Ukrainian police discovered more than 150 holes in the nation's oil distribution system. Oil crooks there and elsewhere can find an unguarded length of pipe and make their own tap. First, they drill a hole most of the way through and then they use a rubber mallet to crack open the pipe without making a spark. They insert a valve into the hole and then attach it to a tanker truck with a hose. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes. You can also tap into a pipeline to steal natural gas, although it's hard to transport.

Pipeline thefts are relatively rare in the United States, where most equipment is buried at least five feet underground. Still, there are plenty of long, unguarded stretches of pipeline. Much of the maintenance and inspection is done with robots called pigs that travel through the pipelines on their own. Live workers are few and far between. In the early '80s, a sophisticated gang tapped into a 16-inch pipeline buried in California. They leased tanker trucks and hooked up their own underground pipe to the existing system. The scheme netted 10 million gallons of crude oil over a three-year stretch until the company began to notice regular and repeating drops in pipeline pressure.

CHADWICK: Andy Bowers is a Slate senior editor, and that Explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues in just a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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