Foto: Fabrizio Giraldi (Bearbeitung: px1)

Transalpine Oil pipeline

The Hidden Lifeline

From the Adriatic coast, through Austria, to southern Germany: the Transalpine Pipeline (TAL) is one of Europe’s most important oil transportion lines. This year it turns fifty.

Text Felix Enzian and Tino Scholz

Massimo Diminich explains early on that this is a very special moment. “Being here inside is just not normal procedure,” he says. “Quite simply, it’s usually impossible.” The only thing inside the enormous round tank is Diminich himself—where usually thousands of liters of crude oil are stored. It’s dark and quiet, every word echo-ing through the murkiness, the lid hanging barely two meters above the floor. “Actually, the oil presses the lid upward,” he says. “But the tank’s being serviced right now, which is why it’s empty, almost abandoned.” He takes a deep breath. The oil may be absent, but the unpleasant stench remains.

A few moments later, Diminich is climbing back out of the darkness, squinting in the bright sun and looking over to another 31 tanks. He’s the technical manager at Società Italiana per l’Oleodotto Transalpino, the Italian division of the TAL Group. TAL, the abbreviation for the Transalpine Pipeline, is a lifeline for oil supplies in Central Europe. It’s 465 kilometers long and pumps crude from Italy to southern Germany, supplying eight refineries in Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany. It also includes two additional branches with a total length of 288 kilo-
meters. Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg receive 100 percent of their oil from it, Austria 90 percent and the Czech Republic 50 percent. “And here in these tanks is where it all begins,” Diminich says.

The oil tank farm is located in San Dorligo della Valle, east of the port city of Trieste, Italy. Diminich says he knows every centimeter of the place, which is a remarkable achievement considering the tank farm covers 1.2 million square meters. In any case, most of the statistics here are pretty impressive: around 40 million liters of oil are pumped into the pipeline northward from San Dorligo della Valle every year, making for a total of 1.4 billion liters over the past 50 years.

The TAL is a once-in-a-century project, an engineering masterpiece that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. The post-war economic boom and the resulting demand for energy made the construction of new refineries and pipelines necessary in the 1960s. The TAL was built in just one thousand days—one of the first pan-European projects initiated after the end of the Second World War and aimed at promoting transnational economic prosperity.

Oil from the entire world

Meanwhile Diminich is back in his car and is driving unerringly across the facility, along the labyrinth of roads weaving among the 32 storage tanks. His destination is the heart of the TAL, the control center in the administrative building. Here is where the crude oil, arriving by sea, is distributed to the various refineries according to their needs, which are clarified in consultation with the German TAL headquarters in Munich. The control center also monitors the storage facility and the pipeline.

Within the control room, one side reveals a large panorama window with an impressive view of a plethora of white tanks, which look like UFOs that have landed in the valley. On the other side, high up on the wall, is a small statue of Jesus, watching over everything. Just in case.

“Safety is paramount,” Diminich says, pointing to the many monitors. There are around a dozen and a half, from which three employees keep an eye on the storage tanks and the pipeline in its entirety. The monitors show how much oil is currently being pumped through the pipeline. Right now it’s 6,800 cubic meters an hour, near the maximum of 7,500. Before the oil flows into the pipeline, it is inspected for quantity and quality at the tank farm. “We send it to labs and have it tested,” Diminich explains. “Furthermore, we have a tolerance of 5 millimeters per 20 meters for the amount.”

Dispatchers in an adjoining room order oil from all over the world after they’ve ascertained the demands of the refineries in the system. “The logistics behind it are enormous,” Diminich continues. “Every year, five hundred ships dock in Trieste’s harbor and dispatch the oil through smaller pipelines into the storage facility. The oil is never here longer than 24 hours. It should always be flowing.” From the tanks, the oil goes directly into the large pipeline. It’s pumped towards Germany at a rate of two meters per second.

Oil is the world’s most important resource. Although renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are becoming increasingly significant, it will still be a long time before we can get along without oil. TAL Group General Manager Alessio Lilli believes this, too: “Right now, oil continues to be one of the cheapest sources of energy. It’s important for the petrochemical industry. Without oil we couldn’t fly planes, drive cars or heat countless homes.”

For this reason, the head of the TAL Group sees the Transalpine Pipeline as a sort of ambassador. Or a bridge, as he calls it. “Not only does the oil flow from south to north, but knowledge from north to south, too. The community grows through the TAL. In addition, we’ve established the term ‘pipelife,’ to show that people’s lives aren’t negatively influenced by oil or the pipeline.”

There are four thousand marker poles along the route. Without these, you often wouldn’t even notice the TAL—for the most part, the pipeline runs underground. From Trieste it heads past Udine, Italy, then runs through Austrian soil, crossing East Tyrol, and then passes over the main Alpine ridge through tunnels near the Felbertauern Tunnel, where it reaches its highest point at 1,572 meters above sea level. It next passes Kitzbühel and Kufstein, Austria, before reaching Germany near Kiefersfelden. The pipeline crosses a total of 30 rivers and 130 streams.

One pipeline–eight refineries

The TAL supplies two refineries in the Czech Republic (Kralupy and Litvínov), one in Austria (Schwechat) and five in Germany (Ingolstadt, Karlsruhe, Neustadt an der Donau, Vohburg and Burghausen).

The equivalent of 10,000 tanker trucks

Branches of the pipeline along the way deliver oil to refineries in the Czech Republic and Austria, but the oil inexorably makes it way along the main pipeline, always heading towards its main destination, Ingolstadt, Germany. Once there, it splits into two branching pipelines: one heads westward and ends close to Karlsruhe, the other points eastward and ends near Neustadt. As Alessio Lilli explains, it’s all emission-free: “The pipeline saves up to five thousand tanker trips and empty return journeys per day – and therefore a lot of carbon dioxide. And it’s safe, which is something we and our partners make sure of every day.”

An example of this can be seen five hundred kilometers north of San Dorligo della Valle: in Nördling-en, Germany. Ingo Mosters, shrouded in protective overalls and rubber boots, is trudging through the mud of a Bavarian cornfield, continually on the lookout for potential problems with the pipeline. Mosters is a specialist for TÜV SÜD, and on behalf of the approval authoritiy and the TAL operating company he and his colleagues spend all year ensuring the safety and security of the German pipeline routes. TÜV SÜD undertakes a broad range of tasks for this, including routine inspections of the pipeline’s integrity, as well as verification of the safety technology in the German pumping stations.

Every ten years, a complex measuring probe is sent through the pipeline. It detects defects such as bulges, decreases in wall thickness or fine cracks in the pipeline system. If the possibility exists that such a defect could affect the pipeline’s safety, it is then assessed in person—as Ingo Mosters, who has disappeared into the cornfield through muddy soil and a steady drizzle, is now doing.

So that Mosters can inspect a suspicious spot in the pipeline, a construction company has dug a small pit, where several meters of pipeline are now exposed. Mosters and Tobias Keibl from TAL climb down beneath the conduit. The desired thickness of this section of the pipeline is supposed to be 7.92 millimeters. The faulty spot is exactly 2.6 millimeters thinner, Mosters notes. Later, back at his desk, he’ll precisely calculate whether the spot could pose a risk.

If it does, this section of the pipeline must be refurbished. If a leak in the pipeline actually occurred, it would be a disaster. Mosters recalls an incident on the SPSE pipeline in France eight years ago, where 4,000 cubic meters of crude oil flowed into a nature preserve. The inspections by TÜV SÜD minimize such risks. The efforts expended on regular inspections are so extensive that, until now, every problem area has been identified and repaired in a timely manner over the decades. As Mosters explains, “This shows that the procedures and the inspection cycles serve their purpose.”

Ultimately, the oil should arrive where it’s needed: at the refineries. As it does in Ingolstadt, the German hub and headquarters for the pipeline. The TAL fuel depot in Lenting is located practically adjacent to the Gunvor refinery, part of the Gunvor Group headquartered in Geneva. That’s also why the anniversary celebrations will reach their climax and conclusion in Ingolstadt—in October, the month when the first drops of oil from Italy arrived fifty years ago.

“Our facility has a processing capacity of five million tons annually,” says Gerhard Fischer, director of the refinery. “Our product range includes liquefied gases, basic chemicals such as propylene, gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuels, heating oil, heavy fuel oil and even liquid sulfur.” In short: all the basic products that get used all the time in our daily lives.

“All the processing operations run in an environmentally friendly way and in closed systems,” Fischer explains. And that fits the refinery’s focus. It produces under the world’s strictest environmental standards, known as EMAS. “Safe, secure and environmentally friendly operations are what increase trust among the general public in the end,” Fischer says. And TÜV SÜD helps: for decades now, the company has been the refinery’s partner for inspections and security standards, and for the certification of machinery—and has also been conducting an audit every five to six years, during which the complete facility is examined for its operational reliability.

Partners from the start

Photo: Nürnberg Luftaufnahmen

Partners from the start

The Ingolstadt refinery is the main German terminal for the TAL.

For Fischer, the safety and durability of the company’s refinery cannot be taken for granted, but require constant work to be maintained. The reliability of the TAL impresses him, as well. “The minds that decided back then to build the crude-oil pipeline over the Alps were incredibly wise and prescient. Its construction contributed to Bavaria’s transformation from an agrarian economy to an industrial one,” Fischer says. “The results were prosperity among the population and jobs.”

But the world keeps changing. Discussions about renewable energy and global climate change don’t stop at the refinery’s gates. His maxim is to be proactive about it. “We don’t want to be opponents, but partners for future changes. We believe that oil will continue to play an important part in Germany’s energy supply in tomorrow’s world.”

The reasons for this are obvious: “Oil pro-ducts for mobility and heating are securely available, easy to transport, can be stored over the long term and are affordable for all consumers,” Fischer says. In his opinion, only the synergy of renewable energy and fossil fuels is promising for the coming decades. “That’s why I’m certain that we and also the TAL will continue to play an important role in the future.”

And so the oil will continue flowing through the conduits of the Transalpine Pipeline for quite some time. About three days have passed from the delivery of the oil at the Italian harbor in Trieste to its arrival in Ingolstadt. A river crossing three nations and 465 kilometers, that has not yet run dry and that continually renews itself at the beginning. As it has done for the past fifty years.