NC’s complicated relationship with Colonial Pipeline, gas shortages

The line to the gas station just off Interstate 40 snaked around the block, while just south of downtown Wilmington, tankers lined up bumper to bumper waiting to d ” enter the fuel terminals that line the Cape Fear River near the State Harbor.

The Colonial Pipeline had stopped pumping fuel into North Carolina, and the state was slowly coming to a halt as gas stations dried up.

But it wasn’t two weeks ago, when a days-long pipeline shutdown caused by a ransom attack left gas stations in the Southeast – particularly North Carolina – with empty tanks. .

It was September 2016 when the Colonial Pipeline was closed again, this time due to an outage near Birmingham, Alabama. And it wasn’t the first time that a pipeline shutdown has led to fuel shortages in Tar Heel state.

So why is history repeating itself in North Carolina?

“We know what the problem is, and so far we haven’t been able to come up with good solutions,” said Senator Brent Jackson, Sampson County Republican and Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. , energy and the environment, Thursday.

Run on the fumes

At a Jackson committee meeting last week, lawmakers heard from industry representatives that North Carolina depends on only a handful of pipelines to meet the vast majority of the state’s energy needs. .

The Colonial Pipeline and a sister pipeline carry approximately 95% of the state’s fuel supply, with the remainder coming from Wilmington’s waterfront fuel terminals. Industry officials have said North Carolina is also totally dependent on a single pipeline for its natural gas supply.

Together, this makes North Carolina extremely vulnerable to energy disruptions, officials told Senators.

“We need to think long and hard about this because it’s going to happen again,” Jackson said of another disruption, whether intentional – as with the ransomware attack earlier this month – or due to some other cause. . “It’s not a question of if, but when.”

But knowing what the problem is is the easy part. It might be as difficult to find a financially affordable and publicly and politically acceptable solution as May 13.

“We need more redundancy”

Pipelines are by far the cheapest and fastest way to transport fuel. They also have the advantage over large storage tanks, such as those in Wilmington, of allowing a product to get to market quickly, thereby eliminating price volatility issues for suppliers and customers.

But without the extra capacity, things can get risky when the fuel valve is closed.

Colonial’s largest storage facility between the Gulf Coast and the Northeast is in Greensboro. Smaller terminal farms are also found in Charlotte and Selma.

The Colonial Pipeline system stretches from the Gulf Coast to the New York area.  It consists of nearly 5,500 miles of pipelines.

Still, that’s not a lot of capacity for a state as large as North Carolina that is still largely built around the automobile to move people and goods.

It’s pretty much the same for natural gas in North Carolina. The state is currently served by a single pipeline.

“The # 1 vulnerability we have is that we have the service of a single interstate supplier and all of our supply and most of our storage is delivered through this pipeline,” said Rusty Harris, general manager of gas operations at Dominion’s Southeast Energy. Group, at Tuesday’s hearing.

Officials added that while the Transco pipeline is very reliable, it is a potential bottleneck for the state.

“We need more redundancy,” Jackson said Thursday, ticking off additional storage capacity and making more use of Wilmington’s deepwater port as potentially easy options. “We need to have that extra redundancy. It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel here. We know what we need.”

Push for clean energy

But new pipelines, like other energy-related infrastructure, from transmission lines to additional fuel farms to “clean” wind turbines, have proven to be a tough sell in North Carolina.

A proposal to build a new pipeline in the Interstate 95 corridor from Virginia by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy has been discarded last year after facing increasing environmental, legal and political challenges. Another proposal to bring a pipeline to central North Carolina faces regulatory challenges and is on hold.

Tankers line South Front Street in Wilmington on May 12 as they wait to be loaded with gasoline from fuel terminals along the Cape Fear River.

Then there is the issue of pipeline safety and reliability. A colonial pipeline rupture last August sent at least 1.2 million gallons to a nature reserve near Charlotte – a spill that pipeline officials initially had vastly underestimated.

The Colonial’s closure in 2016 and this month isn’t the only time issues have crept in with the 5,500-mile pipeline system. According to CNBC, the pipeline has had full or partial stops at least two dozen times since 2000.

More fuel farms, whether along the coast or inland, could also prove difficult to sell to local residents worried about the potential impacts on health and the environment, not to mention concerns of NIMBY regarding property values.

Then there is the question of whether industry and / or the public sector should invest in “traditional” energy sources at the same time as we are making a great effort to migrate to clean and renewable energy sources. . President Joe Biden has made “green” energy, from promoting the adoption of electric vehicles to expanding the US supply of offshore wind power, a focal point of his administration. And in North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper has said he wants the state to be a leader in clean energy jobs and the adoption of new energy sources.

But Jackson said that while admirable goals, we’re not there yet on clean energy.

“You have to crack an egg if you want to have scrambled eggs. And sometimes you have to judge the good and the bad, ”he said, noting that we are going to depend on fossil fuels for much of our energy needs for decades to come. “I think there have to be give and take on environmental issues when it comes to improving the condition.”

Environmentalists bristle at the idea that North Carolina cannot have a reliable energy supply while protecting the environment at the same time.

DJ Gerken, program director at Southern Environmental Law Center, said the last thing North Carolina needed are big infrastructure projects, like the canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which promised big profits for utility companies as well as big environmental impacts.

“If special interests want to use a temporary gasoline disruption caused by Russian hackers to argue for the enrichment of electric utilities, they can try, but we should not pay attention to them,” he said. he declared.

Journalist Gareth McGrath can be reached at [email protected] or @GarethMcGrathSN on Twitter.

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