There Is No Credible Way to Transport Oil and Natural Gas Without Pipelines

Wed, August 21, 2019

Let’s give credit to where credit is due. The remarkable success of the world-class trans-Alaska pipeline system (TAPS) offers grounds for optimism about public acceptance of oil and natural gas pipelines in the United States.

If you had to pick a time and place where energy production in the United States really gained momentum, you could do worse than 42 years ago in Valdez, Alaska. It was there, on June 20, 1977, following completion of the 800-mile TAPS pipeline, that the first oil arrived from Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope.

Since then, more than 17 billion barrels of oil have flowed through the pipeline and loaded on about 22,000 tankers. The United States has now undergone an energy transformation from a nation of energy dependence and scarcity to one of energy security and abundance.

These days, oil spills — particularly pipeline spills — are rare. Anyone who doubts that should consider that today’s techniques for maintaining pipelines — not only the TAPS pipeline but the entire 2.4 million miles of pipeline in the United States — bear little resemblance to oil and natural gas operations in the past. Sophisticated sensors and drones are now used for pipeline management.

Cleaning pipeline “pigs” — mechanical devices sent through pipelines — track conditions such as corrosion and remove wax that collects on the walls of pipelines. The use of small autonomous robots equipped with cameras and sensors, moving through the pipelines, further keep corrosion at bay and are on the lookout for manufacturing defects.

With America’s vast oil and gas resources crucial for jobs creation and economic growth, the case for expanding the nation’s pipelines system has become compelling. Think about it: U.S. oil and gas production is increasing because new pipelines are being built, bolstering the economy. And the shift from burning coal to natural gas for generating electricity has brought dramatic improvements in air quality and carbon mitigation. 

Pipeline expansions due to come on line this fall will unlock significant amounts of oil and gas in shale deposits, thanks to advances in fracking and directional drilling –—something that would hardly have been considered back in the 1970’s. 

This year alone, pipeline companies expect to complete 2,448 miles of crude oil pipelines, 1,315 miles of petroleum product pipelines, and 2,571 miles of natural gas pipelines, according to the Oil and Gas Journal. That’s 44 percent of the world total for pipeline construction, compared to 24 percent in 2018, and it illustrates why America ranks No. 1 in the world in oil and gas production. 

Those accomplishments could be limited, however, if the prospects for some pipeline projects are left to the whims of various opponents. Because oil and gas will continue to play a leading role in our nation’s energy future, it’s especially important to resolve disputes that have been blocking some pipeline construction.

A good example is the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring Canadian oil from Alberta to the American Midwest and beyond. Although a U.S. appeals court recently ruled in its favor, the project still must clear several more legal hurdles before construction can begin. Further delays would be felt far beyond the oil patch. 

In today’s world, there is simply no credible way to transport oil and natural gas without pipelines. To forfeit a major pipeline like the Keystone XL would be a serious mistake for North America.

Pipelines face challenges, yet they have caught on much faster than was thought likely in the mid-1970s when TAPS was the pipeline environmentalists loved to hate.

Today, there are 190,000 miles of pipelines carrying oil around the country, up more than 60 percent from 2004, and natural gas pipelines have had comparable growth. Other pipeline siting and construction are reshaping the oil and gas industry. 

The bottom line is that safe and cost-effective oil and gas pipelines are critical for the foreseeable future. We just need to continue our ongoing technical and management improvements.

J. Winston Porter, Ph.D., is a former EPA assistant administrator with national responsibility for Superfund and other waste programs. Currently, he is a national environmental and energy consultant, based in Atlanta