The recent shut-down of Colonial Pipeline Company’s Line 1 in Alabama should remind the public and the government just how critical oil and gas pipelines are to America’s energy supply needs. As in most of the country, energy and food supplies are generally replaced on a short time frame, with three days being a typical limit on storage. Any disruption in service thus creates a shortage in essential services, in very short order. Gas prices in six Eastern states jumped quickly after the Colonial incident, due to increased costs and limits on product volume shipped by truck. Colonial is working diligently with PHMSA to investigate, repair and remediate the incident site, and, even as that work is ongoing, Colonial is constructing a temporary bypass line to restore service as quickly as possible. But Colonial’s Line 1 supplies upwards of 40% of all refined gasoline needs along the East Coast, and until pipeline service is restored, the effects will be noticed by a large percentage of the U.S. population.
The oil and gas pipeline infrastructure in the U.S. was initially constructed in the 1940s and 1950s, as German U-Boats threatened coastal transport of oil by barge. The infrastructure expanded in the 1960s in response to the Cuban missile crisis. Further pipeline expansion occurred in the 1970s, due more to demographic and logistic changes than national security issues. Since the 1940s and the 1970s, the American landscape has changed dramatically, and any new pipeline construction now inevitably passes through or by more populated areas.
Pipelines remain important to national security, however, and to America’s energy demands. After September 11, 2001, the federal government designated certain oil and gas pipelines as “critical energy infrastructure.” The recent developments of shale fields in the Bakken, Marcellus, Eagle Ford and other areas have helped the U.S. become more energy independent. At the same time, environmental and citizen groups have increasingly opposed new pipeline construction, arguing that all fossil fuels should remain in the ground, for climate change and environmental concerns. Pipeline opponents would have America immediately convert to 100% renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro, etc.). America likely will be able to generate a majority of its energy needs through renewable sources by 2050, but there is no renewable infrastructure to support an immediate change in source. Oil and gas is increasingly replacing coal as an energy source, which has distinct benefits from a climate change and environmental impact perspective. Oil and gas will be necessary to meet America’s energy needs until at least 2050, but the ability to reliably deliver sufficient oil and gas supplies is hampered with existing infrastructure. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that some experts warn that outages like Colonial’s could become more common due to aging infrastructure and public reluctance to site new facilities and pipelines.
Transportation of oil and gas by pipeline is the safest mode as compared to other modes (rail and barge), with the Department of Transportation referring to pipeline systems as “the safest means to move [oil and gas] products.” Further, crude oil and petroleum products reached their destination safely by pipeline more than 99.999% of the time in 2013 and, likewise, a total of 99.999997% of all natural gas was moved safely though interstate natural gas transmission pipelines in 2014. Despite this excellent safety record, existing oil and gas pipeline infrastructure is aging. New or replaced pipelines contribute to public safety, continuity of service, and cost efficiency. Maintenance and repair of existing pipeline infrastructure, and construction of new pipelines, should be a priority for Americans, in order to meet national energy demands and maintain public safety and infrastructure security.