L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

08 January 2007 Blog Home : January 2007 : Permalink

Problems in the Pipeline

The politicians in Germany and Poland are rather upset because Russia has cut off supplies of oil through the pipeline that runs across Belarus. I'm not going to comment on the deals Russia and its gas/pil producers cut with other nations other than to say that countries who get their energy at below market rates should not act terribly surprised if the producer decides to increase the price next time around. But the fall out of the squabble between the two nations is rather reminiscent of last year's gas problems and shows, to my mind, the advantages of supertankers over pipelines for oil and gas consumers.

The problem with pipelines is that they lead to what those of us who design reliable networks and servers call a "Single Point of Failure" or SPOF. Because the pipeline is there and always providing gas (or oil) you fail to make sufficient allowances for what might happen when it isn't there, and thereby end up in a crisis. This is not something that just applies to oil and gas, the various power outages that we have seen here and there over the year or so indicate that electricity distribution networks are also lacking in redundancy.

I have in the past been fairly radical about criticising people for going for too much redundancy because I've seen a lot of cases where it would have been quicker to simply unplug the failed unit and replace it and other cases where the problem that brimges the network down originates in the redundant design going wrong. However when it comes to energy supplies I think that redundancy and deliberate construction of excess capacity are good things. If you look at the pipeline maps you see that they tend to have no redundancy what so ever and this seems to me to be a really bad thing even if it turns out that the downstream countries have a few months of fuel reserves (which they probably don't). With oil tankers, on the other hand, you don't suffer from this problem because you can (with some limitations about handling of sour crude variants) replace oil from one field with oil from another. In other words you are much more resilient to shocks.

It seems to me to be rather cheeky of the politicians of consuming nations to complain that their single supply of energy has been disrupted. But I'm sure they'd rather spend their time whinging instead of explaining to people that they and their predecessors prefered to ignore this problem.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin