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Friday, July 19, 2013

Oil and gas infrastructure out of synch with fracking boom - a landscape peril, but is there a climate play?


America’s oil and gas infrastructure is out of sync with its newfound, hydraulic fracturing-enabled abundance of supply.  Fixing that situation is essential for environmental and public safety (as well as economic) reasons.  And it also presents an opportunity to strike a grand bargain that brings the oil and gas industry to the table to achieve significant carbon emission reductions.   That is the gist of two must-read articles about our nation’s oil and gas boom.

This Washington Post piece notes a U.S. Energy Information Administration report that says that, due to a lack of capacity of existing oil pipelines not meant to handle the new volumes of shale oil being produced domestically, U.S. transport of crude oil by rail, truck, and barge has jumped 57 percent between 2011 and 2012, surpassing 1 million barrels per day. That obviously brings with it greater risks of accidents and spills – and rail incidents alone have “skyrocketed in recent years, up from one or two a year early in the previous decade to 88 last year.”

The Post reports that “nearly one-third of the natural gas that’s produced in North Dakota is simply burned off, or ‘flared,’ because there are no pipelines to bring it to market” – a small-scale disaster for air quality and climate, and an immense waste of resources. Here in Pennsylvania, the story is the same.  While over 7,200 unconventional wells have been drilled or are under development (as of July 13), less than 4,700 have reported production values and have either been capped or are being flared- largely because gathering and pipeline infrastructure has yet to catch up with drilling activity. 

Yet, pipeline building in the U.S. has surged.  But it's out of synch with the shale boom, and much more development is needed.  The Post report highlights an excellent piece by Jason Bordoff, who writes in the on-line journal Democracy:
enough miles of pipeline (has been built in the U.S.) in the last eight years to travel three-quarters of the distance to the moon, (but) it “was built to move oil from the Gulf Coast up into refineries in the middle of the country. But that entire infrastructure now needs to be flipped on its head to accommodate the massive growth in production from Canada, North Dakota, and other parts of the midcontinent.
Indeed, he writes: 
According to Deutsche Bank, more than 20 large or medium-sized macro (oil) pipelines will likely be going into service in the United States and Canada in 2013, and around 60 pipeline projects are planned or in process. The natural gas pipeline system, too, will require a rapid build-out, and much is already underway. The National Petroleum Council estimates 30,000 miles of new long-distance natural gas pipelines will be needed to manage the new sources of supply… (P)ipeline spending in North America is projected to increase nearly fivefold in 2013 from the prior year, and dozens of pipeline projects are planned.
Bordoff argues that Federal and state policy reforms will be needed to facilitate and rationalize these projects - reforms that include streamlining of permitting.  That rings major environmental and ecological alarm bells unless landscape-level planning is required as part of any streamlining.  The landscape industrialization and habitat fragmentation potential of this scale of pipeline development is immense and federal and state policies must recognize the threats and risks posed by massive pipeline development.

But Bordoff argues that the needed reforms:   
hold the promise of bringing industry to the table to support serious action on climate. Although oil and gas will remain important parts of our energy infrastructure for the foreseeable future, we must act now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change….The new energy infrastructure that the changing landscape requires can be an essential part of a compromise that seeks to advance domestic supply increases while taking meaningful action to address climate change.
Bordoff may be right.  But our nation’s new energy infrastructure needs must not be allowed to further compromise landscapes and ecosystems that are already in great peril from development, and face devastation from climate disruption.  We cannot allow further destruction of the environment in an effort save it.   Smart planning must be an absolutely essential piece of any infrastructure policy reform, and any grand energy bargain.


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