Time is Running Out: The Case for US Investment in its Energy Infrastructure

As Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful ever recorded, leaves Florida battered in its wake, US energy infrastructure continues to bear the strain of long-term planning neglect. The damage wrought by the storms and the impact on the energy sector demonstrates that the time is right to prioritize infrastructure, particularly pipeline infrastructure planning.

When the storm left them without gasoline, motorists in Florida had to electronically track oil tanker trucks and wait in line for limited gasoline stocks in a throwback to the 1970s.  Much of the oil those motorists rely on comes from tanker ships hamstrung by hurricanes. 

Meanwhile, pictures from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the storm immediately preceding Irma, striking Texas on August 25, harken back to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, memories that linger in many minds. Those deeply ingrained images and still-evocative photos presage a clear and present future where the ocean further intrudes on—and indeed claims—US coastlines and its central energy operating arena. These events should provide notice that the canary in the coal mine is on life support, but unfortunately everyone is too busy drying out to notice. 

The shortcomings of US infrastructure have been a rallying cry of many past secretaries of transportation in Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Infrastructure is a rare area of bipartisan agreement, from rural America to Main Street to the US Congress. However, US infrastructure, once a shared source of pride, is now a common cause for concern. The devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma highlights the inherent vulnerabilities of US energy infrastructure.

As our collective heart breaks from the devastation and loss that catastrophic storms bring, seen in images of people and their possessions floating on air mattresses through neighborhoods, the US government must formulate a game plan for the future of its infrastructure.  Energy infrastructure, including our oil and gas pipelines—the veritable vascular system of our country—must be a crucial component of that plan. 

The United States is fortunate to have more than 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines, enough to encircle the Earth more than 100 times. While the nation’s energy infrastructure is abundant, it is imperative to recognize that an inordinate amount of oil and gas production, oil import, refining, storage, and pipeline facilities are in waterlogged states on the Gulf of Mexico. These are the states, and components of US energy infrastructure, which are most consistently susceptible to hurricane damage.

Hurricane Harvey shut down a great deal of offshore and onshore oil and gas production in Texas and Louisiana. Many refineries were also shuttered, as the storm flooded an area that is home to a third of US refining capacity and some of the largest refineries in the country. A number of those refineries, including the nation’s largest, remained offline for two weeks after Harvey first came inland. Texas, the state hit hardest by Harvey, is also the home to large import terminals bringing in oil from around the world, and the point of origin for pipelines that serve as the artery for the rest of the nation—indeed, one-sixth of US pipelines traverse Texas. One in particular, the Colonial pipeline, has been labeled “too big to fail” as it supplies most of the Southeastern United States and the eastern seaboard with gasoline, heating oil, diesel, and aviation fuel. Before Harvey, gasoline scarcity during Superstorm Sandy reminded the northeast of pipelines’ importance. 

The concentration of pipelines and energy infrastructure near the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico clearly illustrates the region’s staggering importance—and the vulnerability of that infrastructure. In addition to geographic location, the advancing age of US pipeline infrastructure should be a primary concern for federal energy, transportation, and national security officials at the highest levels.

Most interstate pipelines in the United States were installed in the 1960s or earlier.  The War Emergency Pipelines (“Big Inch” and “Little Inch”) built to support the war effort nearly a century ago by taking much needed oil and petroleum products from Texas to Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania have parts which continue to operate today under new pseudonyms. After the war, pipelines following their technological lead fueled the nation’s productivity and growth.

In addition to the concerns outlined above, it is important to consider that oil and gas production has increased in parts of the country that had either long forgotten they had energy resources or were not previously aware they had any. That unexpected natural resource bounty requires extensive supporting pipeline infrastructure in a brave new world, where pipelines are no longer “out of sight and out of mind.” Now, every pipeline spill, blast, or incident is tweeted around the world, and pipeline owners and operators are at the bleeding edge of adapting to that new reality. 

In these rapidly changing circumstances, courage is required on all sides to be flexible and engage in honest, informative, intelligent, and respectful discussions and decision-making about the future of US energy infrastructure.  It is of limited benefit to rush through projects when hasty review leads to years of litigation that end in defeat.  Similarly, knee-jerk rejections to projects that improve safety, efficiency, and reliability are equally troubling.  There must be a better way. The nation must seize this opportunity to correct course on its planning for all its infrastructure, including its pipeline infrastructure.

This moment of opportunity has historical precedents. From an economic perspective, one bright spot in the wake of the tragedy of World War II was the boom in US infrastructure, followed by the extensive post-war Golden Age of Capitalism. In the third quarter of the 20th century, US roads, airports, ports, and energy infrastructure inspired awe in foreign visitors, convincing many to settle and pursue the American dream. 

However, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, rather than dreams, US infrastructure leads to lamentations and occasional expletives, the evident strain and near collapse surprising visitors. While other nations have followed the lead set by the United States in the last century and invested heavily in infrastructure, the United States is struggling to climb the down escalator of maintaining and operating its existing infrastructure. The moment is upon us to reverse the course of history or face decline.

Cynthia L. Quarterman is a distinguished senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. She formerly served as the administrator of the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the director of the Minerals Management Service.

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Image: Vehicles lined up for gas at a service station in Dallas, Texas, on September 1 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. (Reuters/Brandon Wade)