Did you know that an emergency has been declared over a huge swath of the southeastern US in the aftermath of a massive pipeline spill? If you missed that one, you’re not alone. Back on September 9, a 36-inch pipeline was shut down near Birmingham, Alabama, after it began leaking thousands of gallons of gasoline into a nearby waterway. Six different states in the region declared emergencies in anticipation of significant fuel shortages resulting from the shutdown, but so far the news has barely scratched its way onto the national radar.
That’s probably going to change as more local motorists are greeted by long lines and empty pumps. In addition, the spill narrowly missed impacting the Cahaba River and the pipeline is none other than the Colonial Pipeline, a major Texas-to-points-east fuel route partly owned by the Koch Capital Investments Company, a subsidiary of the Koch family business Koch Industries.
How a Pipeline is Like OPEC
The six affected states are Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and North Carolina. The governors of each state declared a state of emergency, out of concern over potential gasoline supply disruptions.
The impact is so widespread because, according to some estimates, Colonial accounts for about 40% of the gasoline used in the eastern US.
That status provides Colonial with an outsized influence over the price of petroleum products, enabling Colonial to act as a kind of mini version of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States).
The pipeline spill has already resulted in a price spike in the wholesale cost of gasoline. ABC News is also reporting that residents in the 6 states have been rushing to gas stations to fill their tanks, resulting in scenes reminiscent of the 1970s OPEC oil crisis:
“Long lines have quickly amassed at gas stations in the six states, and social media users took to their accounts to document the chaos and dwindling gasoline supply, in some cases.”
Even before the spill, Colonial has been criticized by oil industry stakeholders for refusing to expand its pipeline space, resulting in higher prices. Here’s a report in the Wall Street Journal from March 9:
“Colonial Pipeline Co.’s unwillingness to expand its pipelines that run between Texas and New Jersey has forced traders to buy gasoline, jet fuel and other products elsewhere at higher costs, executives and lawyers told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at a meeting in Washington, D.C.”
Colonial claims that any expansion will have to wait while it evaluates “cost, future demand, and regulatory hurdles.”
The Case for Distributed, Renewable Energy
The whole episode demonstrates a foundational weakness in the oil industry — namely, that access to oil is an accident of geology and geography.
The source end is concentrated in locations that are often very far from the consumer end, and that is beginning to create problems.
The US is already cross-hatched with long-distance pipelines that aren’t getting any younger. Colonial, for example, was first built in the 1960s.
The Obama Administration, in contrast, has emphasized a regional approach that provides for more local fuel and electricity production, including algae and other biofuel crops, as well as solar and wind energy.
The Colonial Pipeline Spill
As for the Colonial Pipeline spill, the latest reports put the estimate at about 336,000 gallons of gasoline. Recovery efforts are underway, but a total of only 230,000 gallons of gasoline mixed with water have been collected so far.
It could have been far worse. The spill occurred near Birmingham, Alabama, and could have reached the Cahaba River. However, the Cahaba Riverkeeper has been on the scene with the EPA and Colonial, and reports that the spill has largely been contained in a retention pond associated with an existing coal mine.
So, how bad could it have been? Our friends over at AL.com have all the latest details, including this note about the Cahaba River:
“The Cahaba River is home to 135 known species of fish … as well as 35 snail species, 10 of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Ten species of fish and freshwater mussel in the Cahaba are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
“A few miles downstream from the leak location lies the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, which is known nationally as a viewing spot for the Cahaba Lily in the spring. A major drinking water intake for the Birmingham Water Works is upstream.”
Work is currently underway on a new bypass line around the spill, so it looks like repairs on the broken pipe are going to take a while.
Photo of Cahaba Lilies by Pat Hayes via flickr.com, creative commons license.
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