Let’s Accelerate, Not Reverse, Energy Progress Since 1970s Gas Station Lines
Fifty years ago, oil producers in the Middle East stopped exporting petroleum to the U.S., leading to high gas prices, lengthy waits at filling stations, and a nationwide economic malaise that overshadowed Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Our dependence on foreign energy gave rise to that crisis. But that problem is now history, thanks to a U.S. energy industry that harnessed innovation in fracking, horizontal drilling, efficiency, and other breakthroughs. By 2019, America led the world in natural gas and oil production, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia. For the first time ever, the U.S. was a net energy exporter.
But memories of the 1970s recently surfaced when a ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline temporarily blocked America’s longest fuels artery. The shutdown of a cross-country pipeline once again demonstrated the essential nature of U.S. energy. Fear and panic-buying occurred at the pump when motorists assumed that there would not be enough gasoline to meet demand. Some service stations reported selling days’ worth of fuel in a few hours, leading to temporary outages. The Colonial Pipeline and truckers, marketers, and local operators worked 24/7 with government at all levels to overcome logistical challenges that stood in the way of transporting fuels that supply military bases, airports, distribution centers, and more. In the meantime, Colonial employees successfully and safely restarted pipeline operations.
Thankfully, the sellouts at gas stations in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions did not last. Yet they highlighted the essential role of America’s pipeline infrastructure when it comes to national security, economic recovery and – yes – cyber defense.
On a broader scale, it may take criminal hackers to remind some of us that it was abundant homegrown energy which helped America shed its reliance on other nations for critical natural resources. But we cannot let industry opponents exploit a single incident in an attempt to unwind America’s hard-earned energy progress. Calls to abandon pipeline projects, “keep it in the ground,” or prolong President Biden’s halt on natural gas and oil development on federal land jeopardize the many benefits of U.S. energy leadership.
Consider that pipelines are the key mechanism to move crude oil, natural gas, and other critical products across the border between the U.S. and Canada. This relationship has not only enabled trade between our two nations to grow and reduced the U.S. trade deficit but also brought immense national security benefits. Imports of crude oil from Canada have allowed U.S. refineries to reduce crude oil imports from OPEC nations by almost 67 percent between 2000 and 2019. And exports to Eastern Canada from the U.S. have crowded out their imports from OPEC nations by 68 percent in the same timeframe.
For those reasons and more, maintaining existing pipelines and building new ones is just as critical as the upkeep of our other modern infrastructure needs – roads, bridges, airports, and ports. The White House’s infrastructure proposal made mention of all those, but not natural gas and oil pipelines – an omission that reflects the politically charged nature of energy policymaking these days. It also discounts the real value pipelines provide to American families and businesses: widespread access to the affordable and reliable U.S. fuels that heat homes, power hospitals, and enable us to get around.
Even the president’s advisors recognize how energy pipelines enable and enhance modern life. Last week, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said “pipe is the best way” to transport fuel. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry affirmed that pipelines are far more efficient than other forms of transport. Left unsaid is that other methods of energy transport carry greater emissions, leave larger surface footprints, and cause more highway or rail traffic.
Pipelines boost America’s collective savings, too. Over the last decade, as America became the world’s No. 1 producer and transporter of natural gas and oil, household energy expenditures declined nearly 15 percent, even as costs for healthcare, education, and food increased. As the domestic economy recovers and Americans resume normal activities, pipelines will provide the fuels needed to support renewed travel and drive broader growth. Of course, these issues are bigger than any single project – whether it’s the Dakota Access Pipeline, Line 5, or the wrongly canceled Keystone XL – but every opportunity to upgrade and build out our system safely is a sound investment in our future.
As an industry, we will work with policymakers to share information and investigate the Colonial Pipeline incident to further harden our assets against cyber-attacks. Of course, this is far from an energy-specific challenge. The private sector must join with elected officials in fighting this evolving form of criminal activity. Cyberattacks have disrupted health care, government, and other critical sectors. Assessing growing risks and mitigating threats is a societal responsibility.
America has more work to do on this front. But if government and industry continue to partner and maintain existing pipelines, build new capacity, and integrate best-in-class cybersecurity protections, we can avoid threats of fuel scarcity, empower economic growth, and deter global hackers. Let’s seize this opportunity to reinforce – not shut down – our nation’s energy infrastructure.
Mike Sommers is the President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.