Dialogues in Design (poster by Jessica Jenkins). Forthcoming presentation at the RCA (tomorrow, 8th March, 4.30 - 6pm).
With all the panic about the vulnerability of North African and Middle Eastern pipelines and related infrastructure, I thought I would post some notes on the British Government Pipeline and Storage System (GPSS). According to the Oil and Pipelines Agency (OPA),
‘GPSS consists of some 2,500 kilometres of underground cross-country pipelines of differing diameters, together with storage depots, salt cavities, associated pumping stations, receipt and delivery facilities and other ancillary equipment […]. Most of the storage depots are connected to the pipeline ringmain, which in turn is supplied by the majority of the major refining centres and port areas in England. Other self-standing pipelines and depots are situated elsewhere in England and Scotland. The GPSS receives, stores, transports and delivers light oil petroleum products for military and civil users’.
However, according to Alan Turnbull (of secretbases.co.uk),
‘…the whole of the MoD's GPSS network is controlled from the Defence Fuels Group at West Moors near Wimborne, Dorset. It is a tri-service fuel storage, distribution and training centre, designated the Defence School of Petroleum and also known as the Defence Petroleum Centre’.
As an integral part of the infrastructure of national defence, GPSS has few visible or geographical manifestations. In this respect, it remains very much a part of the hidden military geography of the UK. Many large storage depots only began ‘appearing’ on Ordnance Survey maps within the last decade in response to a softening in the British government’s attitude to potentially sensitive geographic information. Recent aerial and satellite photographs reveal field-sized enclosures, sets of uniformly circular mounds and undulations suggesting buried tanks and sub-surface facilities. Some are quite pronounced such as the one at Killingholme, Humberside, within the Lindsey Oil Refinery complex, while others are small and barely discernable even from the air. Similarly, Padworth Common (which is adjacent to AWE Aldermaston), is studded with subtle undulations, tiny out-buildings and slip-roads that seemingly lead to nowhere. Like many military establishments they are accessed by prior invitation only. Rusty fences and padlocked gates usually prevent any unsolicited attention and some sites seem thoroughly neglected despite occasional visit from private security contractors. The existence of GPSS storage depots is not a secret but it is one of the most visually unobtrusive and least known aspects of military planning or infrastructure. The closure of a number of RAF and USAF airbases during the 1990’s means that some GPSS terminals, pumps stations and storage depots are actually not in use. These sleeping sites, while still owned by the MoD and maintained in some capacity by nebulous public and private sector organisations, hint at fluctuating levels of obsolescence in the British Defence Estate.
Much of the information about GPSS in the public domain relates to Health and Safety since the environmental cost of accidentally hitting a high-pressure aviation fuel pipe-line with a mechanical digger, for instance, would be enormous. For this reason the path of the pipe-lines are marked at various intervals by six-foot white posts crowned with slightly improbable yellow and black striped roofs (beautifully photographed by Patrick Keiller's in his recent film 'Robinson in Ruins'). These discreet markers pepper the edges of roads and byways like government issue bird houses or Beatlesque periscopes spying on passing surface dwellers. They barely hint at the complex infrastructural network beneath, stretching across the country and supplying major military bases with the fuel required to train aircrews and fly to war zones around the world. GPSS is the ‘hidden’ arterial system for the British defence capability, a buried network pumping fuel to sites around the country.