Harvey and Irma Remind Us of the Importance of Energy Infrastructure

Harvey and Irma Remind Us of the Importance of Energy Infrastructure
AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File

With Hurricanes Harvey and Irma subsided, now begins the difficult and often heart-wrenching work for those affected throughout Texas, Florida and the Southeast. Families displaced by the storms are slowly returning to survey the damage to their neighborhoods. Communities face the hard task of beginning to repair and rebuild infrastructure fundamental to day-to-day life.

The damages from these storms are still being tallied. What’s evident is that the road to recovery will be long. An analysis by AccuWeather estimates the economic costs will total as much as $290 billion—a full 1.5 percent of U.S. GDP. Yet, amid the devastation, the most important story to emerge has been the resilience and solidarity with which America has responded. From the White House to the everyday heroes organizing volunteer efforts, the country’s collective response has been swift, effective and well-coordinated.    

Clean-up and rebuilding must remain the top priorities for policymakers at every level. Yet, these storms also offer an important reminder about the imperative to continue to invest in the United States’ energy infrastructure. They revealed how vulnerable the country’s nascent energy security is, and how far there is to go to solidify – and diversify – the remarkable energy renaissance taking place nationwide.

There is a lot of work to be done. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. energy infrastructure a “D+” grade in its latest annual report card. Sixty percent of the country’s 2.4 million miles of oil and gas pipelines were built before 1970 when federal authorities began seriously regulating them. Even though many refineries are unequipped to process the light, sweet crude oil abundant here at home, since 1977 only one new refinery has been built—putting a greater strain on transportation lines and concentrating refining capabilities. 

It will require strong public-private partnerships and considerable investment to modernize and expand the country’s energy networks. Lawmakers should use every policy lever to reduce the bureaucratic red tape and political roadblocks that for too long have discouraged construction of pipelines and refineries. Instead of treating the private sector as the enemy, regulators should bring these leaders into the fold to help shape policy, improve safety procedures and bring online new technologies. 

Policymakers have an opportunity to reinforce the United States’ energy stability—and by extension the economic growth and geopolitical positions it supports—by prioritizing infrastructure. Doing so will not only bolster our energy security, it will better protect public lands and waters. It will mitigate the impact of disasters, natural or manmade, and create reliable access to affordable fuels necessary to respond to and recover from emergencies.

For its part, the private sector has made a good-faith effort to begin filling the yawning investment void. Last year, almost 40 major pipeline projects began construction. Newly operational transportation lines, like the Dakota Access Pipeline, have begun moving domestic oil and gas to markets across the country. The effect on consumers has been apparent. Following Hurricane Harvey, for example, oil and natural gas production in North Dakota spiked to an average of more than 1 million barrels per day and 1.85 billion cubic feet per day, respectively, helping create great stability and certainty in energy prices.

It’s impossible to deny the impact domestic oil and natural gas production is having. About 35 percent of the country’s electricity is generated by natural gas today. Likewise, technological developments are improving both production and consumption efficiencies. Not coincidentally, energy-related CO2 emissions fell last year, consistent with a decade-long trend that has put current levels 14 percent below those of 2006.

In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Americans from all walks of life set aside their differences to help those in need. Their example should send a message to policymakers. For too long, Washington has put barriers in the way of the country’s energy infrastructure demands, discouraging investment and ultimately putting communities at risk. It’s time for a paradigm shift. It’s time government regulators partner with the private sector to build the energy network necessary to ensure the United States’ long-term energy security.

Craig Stevens is the spokesperson for Grow America’s Infrastructure Now, a national coalition focused on promoting key infrastructure investments. Follow the Coalition on Twitter @GAINNowAmerica.

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