How do you turn off the gas to an entire country?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 8 2009 6:37 PM

Dry Pumping

How do you shut off a gas pipeline?

Gas pipelines. Click image to expand.
Gas pipelines in Slovakia near the border with Ukraine

Russia shut off the flow of natural gas into Ukraine on Wednesday, according to an announcement from the national gas company, Gazprom. How do you turn off the gas to an entire country? 

Switch off valves in the pipeline or shut down the compressor stations. Gas pipelines typically have valves spaced out every several miles, enabling gas to be shut off if necessary. In addition to regulating how much gas is being delivered downstream, the valves are there for safety purposes, enabling pipeline operators to stop the flow of gas immediately if there is a leak, for example. The valves also allow operators to shut down a section of the pipeline when it needs maintenance. Depending on the pipeline, a valve might be closed manually, or operators may be able to push a button that mechanically shuts the valve. (A massive explosion along a New Jersey gas pipeline in 1994, which occurred when pipeline operators couldn't reach a manually operated valve, spurred a call for more remote-control valves in the United States.)

Advertisement

But it's not just the valves that can slow the flow of gas along the pipeline—and that's part of the reason the dispute over Gazprom has been so tense. Transporting natural gas over long distances requires pressurizing it. Due to friction, however, the gas loses some of that pressure as it moves downstream. As a result, compressor stations are necessary to repressurize the gas and keep it moving forward. To accomplish this, the stations use turbines that are powered by the gas. In large U.S. pipelines, compressor stations are placed between 50 and 100 miles apart from each other.

Some of the compressor stations needed to get Gazprom's deliveries to Europe are on Ukrainian soil, and the company has accused the locals of siphoning off gas that's bound for Europe. (The same pipeline is used to carry gas for both Ukrainian and European customers.) Gazprom further claims that these Ukrainian compressor stations had already been shut off before Wednesday—which would have kept any European-bound gas in Ukraine—and that's what led Russia to stop its supply. Ukraine says that the gas Russia accuses it of siphoning was actually "technical gas" needed to power the compressor stations' turbines. The key sticking point between the two sides now appears to be the makeup of an outside team that would monitor what happens to the gas within the Ukrainian portion of the pipeline.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Tom Miesner of Pipeline Knowledge and Development, Jonathan Stern of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, and Brian Towler of the University of Wyoming.

.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.