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.

.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.