Building America’s fuel bridge

When President John Kennedy used the occasion of his September 12, 1962, speech at Rice University to promote his man on the moon initiative, he told the assembly, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  In doing so, he also recognized that this achievement would come not all at once but incrementally.  The same can be said for establishing a domestic energy policy that recognizes and addresses the needs of the stakeholders in that discussion. 

Building a coalition to craft a responsible energy policy that meets our commercial and consumer needs while reducing carbon emissions is not easy and it will be incremental.  That is what makes the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) and like-minded groups so valuable in building that coalition.  C2ES, NAM and others met on Capitol Hill March 24 in pursuit of such a strategy and in doing so identified two major drivers facing policy makers today; delivery infrastructure and lower carbon emissions.  

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Getting energy to market is a daunting task.  Rail, tanker trucks and pipelines deliver most of the energy we need, with pipelines being a critical means of distributing oil, natural gas, coal slurry and other fuels. Pipeline expansion is also critical to keeping pace with production, both in terms of getting energy from the wellhead to major utilities and distributing it to individual businesses and homes. Recent research by the global consulting firm ICF International estimates America needs $30 billion in private sector pipeline investment each year for the next two decades to keep pace with oil and gas production, a figure that’s triple our current rate of investment. 

Much of this owes to rapidly expanding production in the natural gas sector.  The ICF study found that keeping pace with this expansion will require more than 330,000 miles of additional gas transmission and gathering pipeline, nearly 900 times more pipeline than the 367 miles of pipe built in 2012. These data illustrate the acute need for expanding our pipeline infrastructure; to ignore this would strangle production, keep consumer energy prices high and impede America’s energy independence.

America has the capacity to meet domestic oil and gas production needs with an expanded pipeline system, but it must be part of an integrated approach involving additional development of renewable energy sources, nuclear power, clean coal and lower-carbon fossil fuels. Inasmuch as fossil fuels are a simple reality in any contemporary energy policy, it’s incumbent upon us ensure safe, reliable delivery of this energy.

Improvements in pipeline safety are being propelled by technological advancements. New “smart pipe” technology is in the offing, with the development of pipes that can actually mend their own leaks.  Mobile corrosion sensors, which flow through pipelines on a continuous basis, detect areas of high moisture that can cause pipeline corrosion, enabling superior monitoring of pipeline integrity.  Advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems are emerging, leading to faster detection of leaks, and new means of containing and capturing fugitive methane are lowering greenhouse gas emissions.   

These sophisticated pipeline management and monitoring systems rely increasingly on computerization, creating the need for improved cyber security.  A hostile cyber attack on the control systems for energy delivery could lead to significant disruptions in the fuel supply, illustrating the fact that energy security demands cyber security.

The White House accelerated the debate by issuing a series of proposals March 28 to reduce methane emissions and it’s an important part of the discussion.  Methane is a component of natural gas and can escape pipelines through pipe joints and fittings, transfer points, and other vulnerable areas along a pipeline system. It’s also a significant environmental concern because of its effect on the atmosphere. Reducing this leakage is not only good for the environment, it’s also good business; gas leaks are the equivalent of throwing away product.  

Industry, environmentalists, utilities, unions, consumers and other stakeholders must be part of the dialog in pursuit of a coalition that can forge a 21st century energy policy, not because it is easy but because it truly is hard. The need is clear; the means are here and groups like C2ES, NAM and others deserve credit for taking measured steps in that direction.

Galvin is the immediate past chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers’ Tax Committee and retired vice chairman of Emerson, a diversified global manufacturing and technology company based in St. Louis, MO.

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