Are our oil and gas pipelines safe during an earthquake?

The research shows that current methods used for calculating stress received by the underground pipelines during an earthquake are incorrect.


Research News


Underground pipelines that transport oil and gas are very important engineering communications worldwide. Some of these underground communications are built and operated in earthquake-prone areas.

Seismic safety or seismic stability of underground pipelines began to be intensively studied since the 1950s.

Since then, a number of methodologies were proposed for calculating stress received by an underground pipeline during an earthquake. The purpose of these methodologies was to make an accurate prediction on the structural stress received by a pipeline during an earthquake, and thus it would allow to decide how resilient the pipeline must be made in the first place. It is important to find a right balance between pipeline cost and its structural resilience.

Turns out, we were wrong.

New research has been conducted by scientists from Institute of Mechanics and Seismic Stability of Structures Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan and Peter the Great St.Petersburg Polytechnic University (SPbPU) of Russia. The research shows that current methods used for calculating stress received by the underground pipelines during an earthquake are incorrect.

“The existing methods do not consider seismic pressure, i.e., the stress normal to the pipeline’s outer surface arising from the propagation of a seismic wave in the soil. This leads to an incorrect determination of the pipeline’s stress; the longitudinal stress calculations lead to errors of 100% or more,” said Nikolai Vatin, professor of Institute of Civil Engineering SPbPU.

Disregard of the longitudinal stress means that all oil and gas underground pipelines are more susceptible to earthquakes than was initially expected.

Researchers have developed a new theory of the seismic wave propagation process in an underground pipeline and surrounding soil to address this problem.

The related theoretical material that explains all the mathematical calculations of the new theory and its benefits in comparison to predecessor methodology can be found in the article Wave Theory of Seismic Resistance of Underground Pipelines.

“It is very admirable indeed that science moves forwards, and we get better theories and find our errors. Yet the ominous concern is that all our current pipelines are at risk will stay for some long time until they are replaced and modernized” mentioned Karim Sultanov from Institute of Mechanics and Seismic Stability of Structures Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

The research results in the article.


The research is funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation as part of World-class Research Center program: Advanced Digital Technologies (contract No. 075-15-2020-934 dated 17 November 2020).

From EurekAlert!

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Curious George
April 16, 2021 6:06 pm

The first set of waves to be detected by seismographs are P waves, or primary waves, as they’re the fastest. They’re compressional or longitudinal waves that push and pull the ground in the direction the wave is traveling. They usually cause very little damage.
S waves, or secondary waves, come next since they travel more slowly than P waves. They travel in the same direction, but they shake the ground back and forth perpendicular to the direction the wave is traveling. S waves are more dangerous than P waves because they have greater amplitude and produce vertical and horizontal motion of the ground surface.
The slowest waves, surface waves, arrive last. They travel only along the surface of the Earth. There are two types of surface waves: Love and Rayleigh waves.
Love waves move back and forth horizontally.
Rayleigh waves cause both vertical and horizontal ground motion. These can be the most destructive waves as they roll along lifting and dropping the ground as they pass.

Tom Halla
April 16, 2021 6:29 pm

I’ve seen pictures of the Alaska Pipeline where it crosses a strike-slip fault. The pipeline is above ground, using a deliberately S-curved section, with the supports on sliders.
Apparently, the design worked, as there was an earthquake on that section of the fault. Faults like the San Andreas can produce quite considerable lateral displacement as well as shaking.

April 16, 2021 6:55 pm

Interesting paper. Pipelines are subject to a number of large forces, geological, slope slippage, impact, fluid temperature change, rocks…..Mostly, they don’t break because they historically have been made out of steel that will stretch a long ways before it breaks, and is happy in its yielded condition for decades.
Every few years, pipeline engineers are enticed to use a new higher tensile grade of steel. This results in thinner wall pipe and cost savings as a result of the lower weight of steel used. Pipeline engineers are happy to have their budgets lowered, distribution companies are happy with the reduced cost, even landowners are happy that the “best grade” of pipe is crossing their property ….except in this metallurgical philosophical transition, the line pipe moves further away from it origin as soft ductile boiler plate steel that will yield when over-stressed by something like the seismic events of this paper, and more towards a high tensile steel that will have issues with cracks propagating at the speed of sound when overstressed, sort of like a Coke bottle. It is truly a case of “watch what you wish for” in the pipeline cost savings department… far everybody still thinks we’re OK….

Last edited 1 year ago by DMacKenzie
April 16, 2021 6:59 pm

“This leads to an incorrect determination of the pipeline’s stress; the longitudinal stress calculations lead to errors of 100% or more,” said Nikolai Vatin, professor of Institute of Civil Engineering SPbPU.”

For Russian pipelines, built by Russian engineers. No surprises here. Probably even “worse than we thought” for anything dating back to the Soviet Era.

Reply to  TonyL
April 17, 2021 2:02 am

False assumptions there. The engineering design doesn’t have political assumptions like you do.

Zurab Abayev
Reply to  Duker
April 17, 2021 4:56 am

Soviet and Russian designed equipment was and still is notorious for it’s faults. I lived through it

Reply to  Zurab Abayev
April 17, 2021 8:38 am

Also partly why the Soviets didn’t get to the Moon first.

Reply to  BobM
April 17, 2021 1:25 pm

The space race started with them in the lead, same with the missile gap in the 1950s.

Reply to  Duker
April 17, 2021 6:23 am

And yet engineers do. As do scientists. Ever hear the name Lysenko?

Reply to  2hotel9
April 17, 2021 1:02 pm

Aah, I was wondering when someone would invoke the name of Comrade Trofim.

Reply to  2hotel9
April 17, 2021 1:26 pm

Ever heard of Mann?

Reply to  2hotel9
April 19, 2021 7:13 am

Funny thing- Lysenko was actually partially vindicated by the discovery that “helper dna” could be transmitted to the next generation along with the required nuclear DNA.

The “helpers” also can include phages and lipid compounds that go along with the actual DNA.

All in all a very complex process with many possible failure points and many built in corrective measures.

Rick C
Reply to  TonyL
April 17, 2021 9:24 am

It’s probably a good thing then that the standard engineering safety factor for pipelines is 3 (300%).

Spuyten Duyvil
April 16, 2021 7:00 pm

In her 2014 book, “Full-Rip 9.0,” mainly about the Cascadia Subduction Zone, reporter Sandi Doughton devotes a chapter to the shallow Seattle fault(s). That system of faults runs east-west across Puget Sound, Elliott Bay, under Seattle’s pro sports stadiums and on to the eastern suburbs along the Interstate 90 corridor. A thrust fault, it last let go in what would now be a catastrophic quake approximately 1200 years ago. Portions of West Seattle near Alki Point show evidence of having been lifted 20 feet south of the fault. A mammoth piece of the SE end of Mercer Island simply slid off the island’s clay soil layer into Lake Washington, still clearly visible on relief maps. How the road, rail, utilities and pipeline transportation corridors, modernized or not, running north-south through Seattle would fare in a similar earthquake is a simple question and has a simple answer; not very well.

April 16, 2021 7:06 pm

Whenever I accidentally run across yet another Climate-Porn Piece by David Attenborough, I realize again that he is an Intruder in the World of Sanity.

Reply to  nicholas tesdorf
April 17, 2021 2:37 am
April 16, 2021 7:16 pm


Down in New Orleans circa 1990, a construction crew broke a natural gas pipeline Between the Superdome and the USPS mail processing center along with a huge hotel and a government office building in the immediate vicinity.

The first giveaway was an incredible roar as natural gas fled it’s confines.
People who looked to see what was going on, saw some people looking down into a large hole dug by the construction crew.

Ten minutes later, security officers realized that a gas leak in the back lot was a very bad thing. So they evacuated the mail processing center, then they evacuated the government office building.

I’m not sure the hotel ever got evacuated. Other office buildings a half block away did not evacuate.

Everyone evacuated was forced to evacuate on the other side of the buildings from the break. Where most people stood. Some people kept walking until they crossed the highway.
A little later, perhaps twenty minutes after the break occurred, security officers made everyone cross the street away from the buildings.

All were close enough that if the gas got lit, It’s be like an oven set on broil.

Sure, big earthquakes will break a few lines. All of them will get the same solution that the break in New Orleans got, the owner of the pipeline will shut off the supply.

I went to lunch, a block away from the break. When lunch was over, the pipeline had been shut down and the gas leak was over.

Then we started a bar by bar search for survivors who should’ve been at work…

Kelvin Duncan
April 16, 2021 7:25 pm

Many years ago I pointed out to the authorities the dangers of earthquakes to the reticulation of natural gas throughout New Zealand’s North Island (the South Island doesn’t have a supply of natural gas even though it has immense reserves).
New Zealand has a lot of often severe earthquakes, so the risk is real. To mitigate the risk earthquake activated valves were introduced into sections of the pipe lines. These have performed well in all the earthquakes we have had since the rollout.
However, our woke Labour party-led coalition government has announced that gas is to be deprecated in a few years. Attached is the proposed usage projection. Crazy.

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Reply to  Kelvin Duncan
April 17, 2021 2:13 am

Try getting it right. They are just following the policies of previous government which signed the bizarre Paris Treaty where CO2 emission reductions are mandated, and if you don’t then taxpayers will have to increase the payments offshore to mitigate the carbon created.
Firstly the offshore exploration ended before a change in government as the oil price drop meant they no longer had any money, the new government merely said no NEW exploration licenses would issued, a moot point as by then existing exploration had ceased for reasons mentioned before.
The reason for the South island having no pipelines is because there is no proven reserves , except in the minds of some. They had been drilling in likely areas since the 1890s, I have a family photograph of such an exploration drilling at that era.

Fresh water
Reply to  Kelvin Duncan
April 17, 2021 1:47 pm

There are reticulated gas mains in chirstchurch (south island of NZ) that survived a large earthquake.

Current best practice is to built in flexibility which avoids the issue raised in the article.

Regardless, you cant design for everything, I have seen a heavily reinforced box culvert sheared in two where it crossed a fault and one side decided to go up 2.5m vertically. No pipe can survive those kinds of forces!!

Rich Davis
April 16, 2021 7:58 pm

It comes to us from EurekAlert! so my first assumption is that the point must be to make a case that oil and gas pipelines are almost as dangerous as the horrible climate emergency that they are causing.

There’s also the usual Russian disinformation designed to throw up any possible barriers to competitors selling oil and gas. If they can get pipelines shut down and block new ones, that constrains supply and raises the price.

April 16, 2021 8:00 pm

TAPS survived the 2002 M 7.9 Denali Fault quake. It crosses the line of slippage perpendicularly. Cook Inlet natural gas pipelines survived the Nov 30 2018 M 7.0 quake. No breakage or leakage. The lights did not go out. Local heat did not stop. The trick will be to figure out why. Cheers –

Chris Morris
April 16, 2021 8:10 pm

At the capital city in New Zealand, Wellington, they built the water supply pipeline into the city directly along the active fault line. But then the topography didn’t allow any viable alternative.

Walter Sobchak
April 16, 2021 8:29 pm

California tumbles into the sea
That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale

“My Old School” by Steely Dan

Reply to  Walter Sobchak
April 17, 2021 9:11 am

And if California slides into the ocean

Like the mystics and statistics say it will

I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill

“Desperados Under The Eaves” by Warren Zevon

Last edited 1 year ago by PaulH
Joel O'Bryan
April 16, 2021 8:44 pm

So….Earthquakes can rupture pipelines…. Who Knew???

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
April 16, 2021 11:41 pm

Some statistics about pipelines that have had dangerous failures due to earthquakes would have been enlightening and, more importantly, would put concerns about inadequate design and construction into perspective. Does history show there are problems or is this another maybe, could be, if only, perhaps, maybe possible, etc.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
April 17, 2021 5:30 am

We must get to zero earthquakes by 2030.

I suggest we tax the hyper-rich (everyone who has more than I have) in order to subsidize my sustainable earthquake prevention scheme.

It only accidentally puts me into the hyper-rich category (but naturally my new wealth will be exempted in order to encourage the development of critically needed anti-earthquake emerging technologies). Yes, correct, I don’t actually have a working solution yet, but I have a marketing plan and several Congress-critters.

Reply to  Rich Davis
April 17, 2021 10:23 am

Having a “working solution” is obviously not a requirement, while “a marketing plan” is. I have one too. Let me know when you need a good source for “earthquake offsets”.

April 16, 2021 10:05 pm

What about oil and gas wells which are essentially vertical pipelines that are often near or cross active faults. I’ll bet modeling says they are designed incorrectly for earthquakes too!

Reply to  RelPerm
April 17, 2021 1:26 am

oil & gas wells can be breached by movement along active faults


Reply to  RelPerm
April 17, 2021 4:51 am

It even happens occasionally in the Gulf of Mexico, particularly in Pleistocene reservoirs. The “rocks” are young and the structures & faults are often the result of ongoing salt tectonics. If a well is drilled through a fault plane and that fault slips enough to shear the casing, the well is prematurely junked and abandoned. If the remaining reserves are sufficiently large, a sidetrack or new well will be drilled to recover them. Most wells are drilled through one or more fault planes, most of the structural traps are fault-related. Fault slippage sufficient to shear casing is rare, but it does happen.

There is no way to engineer wells to prevent this.

Last edited 1 year ago by David Middleton
Rich Davis
Reply to  David Middleton
April 17, 2021 5:36 am

Au contraire! You are forgetting the no-well solution. We must leave it in the ground. Your days of wounding our Mother are drawing to an end, my friend. Thanks to President You-know-the-thing.

Reply to  Rich Davis
April 17, 2021 9:33 am

Larry says…

Nick Schroeder
April 17, 2021 8:11 am

Nothing is safe from earthquakes.
That’s how they deserve their reputation.

April 17, 2021 1:11 pm

OK, for the sake of argument, let us accept the premise of this article. It states that pipeline technology has been focused upon earthquake safety since the 1950s. Now they are saying that the engineering doctrines may be off by 100%.

How many earthquake pipeline fractures have occurred since the fifties? Where is the data that indicates that there has been a problem?

If there has not been a catastrophic problem in fact, why all this foofooraw?

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