Pipe Dreams: How America Gets Energy

The backbone of America’s energy infrastructure

April 2022

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

In the winter of 2022, the world watched in horror as Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

The question on everyone’s mind: “How did they think they could get away with this?”

One very good answer to that question: Because over 40% of the natural gas Europe relies on to keep itself warm during the winter … comes from Russia.i And standing up to the people who are keeping you from freezing … is a tall order.

Now, if you’re an American, this scenario might seem unthinkable. After all, the U.S. produces more natural gas than any other nation in the world. ii

We’d never have to rely on a hostile nation to keep ourselves warm.

Or at least that’s what you’d think…

…unless you were there the day that Russian gas pulled into Boston harbor.iii

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

Here’s a simple test to determine whether you live in a prosperous society: Do you ever worry about where you’re going to get the necessities of life?

Do you ever pull up to the gas station and worry that the pumps might be empty? Do you ever go to switch on the lights and worry that nothing will happen?

Most of the time, the answer is ‘no’ … which is why it’s so terrifying when the answer is ‘yes.’

Blackouts in Texas in early 2021. Over 10,000 gas stations running dry after a cyberattack only a few months later. iv

What do those incidents have in common? They demonstrate what happens when pipelines aren’t working.

If America’s energy supplies are the lifeblood of our economy, then we can think of pipelines as something like the nation’s circulatory system.

In the U.S., pipelines are used to bring us about 90% of our petroleum and virtually all of our natural gasv — which is pretty significant, given that those two power sources alone make up about 70% of the country’s entire energy use.vi

That’s why America has over 2.6 million miles worth of pipelines.vii Because without them … the whole country gets very Amish very fast.

But, as you may have noticed … not everyone is thrilled about this. In recent years, legal challenges have led to the cancellation of several major pipelines and delays for many others. From 2009 to 2018, the time it takes to get pipelines approved increased by more than 50%. viii

So, what’s happening here? The objections to pipelines rest primarily on two critiques. The first is that they’ll contribute to carbon emissions. The second is that pipeline accidents could lead to oil spills. And both of those claims … really require context to understand.

When it comes to carbon emissions, it’s important to know that the pipelines themselves aren’t really the issue. They’re just a mode of transportation.

The carbon emissions come from the petroleum and natural gas that flow through the pipelines. But here’s the catch: Getting rid of the pipelines … doesn’t mean getting rid of the emissions.

Cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance, may have felt like a win for the environment — but it’s not like that oil is gonna stay in the ground as a result. In fact, much of it is likely to be shipped to China — which isn’t exactly a low-emissions trip.ix

And we can probably expect to see more of that. Current government projections are that, even with a steep increase in the use of renewable fuels, we’ll still be getting about 2/3 of our energy from natural gas and petroleum … 30 years from now.x

Refusing to build pipelines won’t change that reality … but it will make the system we actually have much harder to operate.

Which gets to those concerns about safety. Do accidents occur with pipelines? Yes. It happens.xi However, accidents occur with all forms of energy transportation. So, the real question is what’s safest among the available options.

And on that front … pipelines do pretty well. Because if you’re not going to move fuel through the ground, you only have three other options: put it on trains, put it on trucks, or put it on boats.

Now, none of those methods is especially dangerous, but pipelines spill a lower percentage of the oil they transport than any method except boats.xii And boats have … limited utility on this front. Because they still need fuel in Nebraska … and America’s 26 other land-locked states. xiii

So, what does a world without pipelines look like? We already sorta know the answer.

The reason that Boston was getting gas from Russia, for instance, was because the state of Massachusetts refused to allow a pipeline to bring it from Pennsylvania.xiv That’s the same reason, by the way, that, in January of 2022, the citizens of Boston … were paying 400% more for natural gas than those Pennsylvaniansxv only 200 miles away — in the middle of a New England winter.

Here's the reality: None of us are willing to live in a world where the lights don’t reliably come on or gas doesn’t reliably come out of the pump. We can aspire to a future powered by cleaner energy sources, but until that day comes … we’re going to be relying on fuel sources like petroleum and natural gas.

Which means we either rely on pipelines…

…or rely on places like Moscow…

…or get very comfortable with horses.

Sources

  1. Liquefied Natural Gas — European Commission
  2. Energy Source / Activity: Natural Gas — U.S. Energy Information Administration
  3. “Tanker Carrying Liquefied Natural Gas From Russia’s Arctic Arrives in Boston” (Steve Mufson) — Washington Post
  4. "Colonial Pipeline Still Moving Fuel Despite Disruptions to Orders System" (Collin Eaton) — Wall Street Journal
  5. Transportation of Oil, Gas, and Refined Products — American Geosciences Institute
  6. U.S. Energy Facts Explained — U.S. Energy Information Administration
  7. General Pipeline FAQs — U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
  8. "Is This the End of New Pipelines?" (Hiroko Tabuchi, Brad Plumer) — New York Times
  9. "Canada’s Trans Mountain Pipeline Sees Fortunes Shine After KXL’s Demise" (Rod Nickel, Steve Scherer— Reuters
  10. Annual Energy Outlook 2021 (pg. 9) — U.S. Energy Information Administration
  11. Pipeline Incident 20-Year Trends — U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
  12. Report on Shipping Crude Oil by Truck, Rail, and Pipeline — U.S. Department of Transportation
  13. Landlocked States of the United States — WorldAtlas
  14. "Our Russian ‘Pipeline,’ and Its Ugly Toll" — Boston Globe 
  15. “Why Is New England Paying the Equivalent of $180 Oil for Natural Gas?" — U.S. Energy Information Administration, via Forbes

Shownotes

SOUND | Artlist: “Come Back Alive” (Ian Post) / “MDI” (AR Ferdinand) / “Do Your Thing” (Guesthouse) / Artlist SFX Library

FOOTAGE | U.S. Department of Energy: Energy Information Administration // Wall Street Journal // The Boston Globe // Bloomberg // Time // Library of Congress: Strobridge Lith & Co., Gibson & Co. // NYPL: Charles Green Bush // Boston Public Library: Leon H. Abdalian // World Development Indicators – World Bank // United Nations – Population Division // Incomes Across the Distribution Database: Nolan, Thewisser, Roser // Maddison Project Database: Bolt, Jutta and Jan Luiten van Zanden // National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health // Getty: Bloomberg / Contributor, Nikitje, Megan Varner / Stringer, Go Nakamure / Stringer, Imgorthand, Glowimages, Chip Somodevilla / Stringer, Mark Wilson / Staff, Peter McDiarmid / Staff, Perets, Chanin Wardkhian, Onurdogel // Adobe Stock: Nopphon, Torval Mork, Srckomkrit, Teppakorn, BigBlues, Geengraphy, Deagreez, Viorel Sima // Storyblocks: Tai11, Ami Bornstein, Alexyz3d, WeAre, Kasetskiy, Ptnmedia, Artemegorov, ODesigns, Ifs, Stockbusters, 02lab // Flickr: Todd Lapin, James St. John, Fibonacci Blue, Tim Evanson, PROJECT_MANAGER, Charles Abbott // Unsplash: Chris Arthur-Collins, Timothy Rubby, Sigmund, Mette van der Linden, Fedor Shyapnikov, Majid Geidarlou, Waldemar Brandt, Dan Gold, Jake Nackos // Pixabay: Elynde, OpenIcons, OpenClipArt – Vectors, RebeccasPictures // Vecteezy: Suksan Yodiyam // Calendar.com // 123RF: Antonshahrai // Daniel Penfield // Rhurfisch // Pax Ahimsa Gethen // Brylie Oxley // Btr // Morven //  Famartin // Jordiferrer // Joe Mabel // George E. Koronaios // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.

Sources

  1. European Commission
    Liquefied Natural Gas
  2. U.S. Energy Information Administration
    Energy Source / Activity: Natural Gas
  3. Washington Post
    “Tanker Carrying Liquefied Natural Gas From Russia’s Arctic Arrives in Boston” (Steve Mufson)
  4. Wall Street Journal
    "Colonial Pipeline Still Moving Fuel Despite Disruptions to Orders System" (Collin Eaton)
  5. American Geosciences Institute
    Transportation of Oil, Gas, and Refined Products
  6. U.S. Energy Information Administration
    U.S. Energy Facts Explained
  7. U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
    General Pipeline FAQs 
  8. New York Times
    "Is This the End of New Pipelines?" (Hiroko Tabuchi, Brad Plumer) 
  9. Reuters
    "Canada’s Trans Mountain Pipeline Sees Fortunes Shine After KXL’s Demise" (Rod Nickel, Steve Scherer)
  10. U.S. Energy Information Administration
    Annual Energy Outlook 2021 (pg. 9)
  11. U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
    Pipeline Incident 20-Year Trends
  12. U.S. Department of Transportation
    Report on Shipping Crude Oil by Truck, Rail, and Pipeline 
  13. WorldAtlas
    Landlocked States of the United States 
  14. Boston Globe
    "Our Russian ‘Pipeline,’ and Its Ugly Toll" 
  15. U.S. Energy Information Administration, via Forbes
    “Why Is New England Paying the Equivalent of $180 Oil for Natural Gas?" 

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