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Theft from pipelines: startling increases being recorded

We know that theft of products from pipelines is becoming an international problem. How big a problem is it, and is it time for international cooperation to stop these thefts?

We know that theft of products from pipelines is becoming an international problem. How big a problem is it, and is it time for international cooperation to stop these thefts?

First of all, why would people steal from pipelines? Well, crude oil is refined in refineries to produce valuable liquids such as gasoline, diesel and kerosene (use in jet fuel). These refined ‘products’ are sent to their markets in pipelines. Pipelines can transport thousands of litres of these products every hour, and there is a ‘black’ market for these products. Reports in the UK indicate thieves can steal hundreds of thousands of litres/day (see 10th August, 2014.

The scale of this theft is huge; for example, oil theft cost the Chinese oil industry more than $124.6m (2006 prices) in one year, and led to 2,877 arrests (see BBC News 24. 31/03/2006); and, between 2002 and 2009, one unnamed company encountered numerous oil stealing cases: 19,804 cases involving drilling into oil pipelines, and 12,167 cases of direct theft from production wells (see, 11 June 2010). The cost to a company can be staggering: companies can lose billions of dollars (see

Pipelines are a safe form of transporting products such as crude oil and natural gas, and most pipelines are buried deep (about 1 metre) underground. Unfortunately, these pipelines are spread over 100s of kilometres, and it is impossible to protect every metre every day, so they are a relatively easy target for theft.

This means that pipelines are liable to ‘malicious’ threats such as terrorism, theft, vandalism, sabotage, and cybercrime. Theft (sometimes called ’illegal tapping’ or ‘bunkering’) is on the increase. Historically, theft was endemic to countries such as Nigeria and Mexico, but it is now reaching epidemic proportions. Organizations that collect pipeline safety data are highlighting this as an international problem; for example, CONCAWE ( states:

‘… [there has been a] continued dramatic rise of spillages related to product theft attempts, 54 of which were reported [in 2014], confirming the trend already observed in 2013.’

There is a business cost to these thefts, and these are high costs including loss of revenue, but also repair costs (to the pipeline and environment). But more important, there can be a high human cost, with huge loss of lives being caused by leaking product from these theft sites.

The pipeline industry needs a coordinated approach to reducing and eliminating theft. The solution will be complex as the causes of theft ranges from poverty to corruption to organise criminals. The solution ranges from education to military action to engineering planning.

Here are some references/links to help you understand and prevent theft from your pipeline: Nov 10, 2000.

M Stone, ‘The Issue of Terrorism’, World Pipelines. May 2005. pp 22-27.
R Brown, ‘Iraq’s Pipeline War’, World Pipelines, May 2005. pp22-31.
P Burgherr, 5th EAPC/PfP Workshop, CIP & CEP, October 2007. Switzerland.
C Fleming, ‘Security Challenge’, World Pipelines, April 2009. pp85-86.
C Imig et al, ‘Mitigating Risks’, World Pipelines, Vol 10, No. 3. March 2010. p. 109.
Associated Press, E E Castillo, 19 Dec 2010,

February 10, 2017

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About PHL

PHL is an engineering consultancy company, based in the UK. We offer consultancy in pipeline engineering, and present training courses and education programmes in pipeline engineering and management. We specialise in pipeline integrity consultancy (including defect assessment, risk management, and failure analysis), and in pipeline engineering training (onshore pipeline engineering, and pipeline integrity engineering). We also offer a wide range of coaching and mentoring services to staff on all levels.

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