How Do You Steal Gas From a Pipeline?

To be safe, use a rubber mallet.

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Free for the taking

Russia’s state-run gas company, Gazprom, announced on Friday that it will cease fuel exports to Ukraine unless Kiev accepts a fourfold price increase within the next two days. The dispute may affect Gazprom’s European customers, who receive their natural gas from a pipeline that runs through Ukrainian territory. A spokesman for the company warned that Ukraine may engage in “unsanctioned removal of gas from the transit system.” How do you steal fuel from a pipeline?

Open a valve and take it. Gazprom can do very little to stop Ukraine’s gas company from siphoning off extra gas. Since Ukraine buys gas from Russia, it already has the infrastructure to tap into the Gazprom pipeline. Russia has for years accused Ukraine of using that tap to draw off more natural gas than it pays for; in 2001, Gazprom filed suit claiming reimbursements for the theft of more than a billion cubic meters of gas. Ukraine admitted that it took the missing gas, but claimed it had been “overdrafted,” not stolen.

You don’t need to be a state-run gas 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. (How do you transport your stolen natural gas? Here’s one way.)

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 1980s, a sophisticated gang tapped into a 16-inch oil 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. (Pipe sensors have trouble detecting small or irregular changes in flow.)

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Explainer thanks Peter Lidiak of the American Petroleum Institute.