The Pipeline Crisis Is Over. Cue the Lobbyists and Their Agendas

The cyber-attack that crippled the nation’s biggest fuel pipeline this week triggered spot shortages of gasoline and a gusher of political rhetoric, with groups from across the political spectrum offering myriad, and contradictory, solutions.

The oil industry says the answer is to invest in more fossil-fuel infrastructure, including refineries. Environmental groups think the key is more electric vehicles on the road and solar panels on the grid. A conservative think tank called the outage a “wake-up call” for pipeline protesters to stop. Even a coal group got involved, noting that its product doesn’t need to be piped anywhere.

“Wind and solar power networks are by their very nature more distributed, more sensibly scaled, and more resilient than fossil fuel systems,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the environmental group Food and Water Watch, said in a statement.

The stark divisions reflect the increasingly vocal energy debate. The oil and gas industry has found itself on the defensive against growing calls to fight climate change by reducing consumption of its products. While many fossil fuel advocates agree that curbing greenhouse gases is critical, they point to the Colonial shutdown as a sign of the potential risks of making the green transition too quickly.

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Colonial Pipeline Co. began to restart the line Wednesday evening, after a ransomware attack caused the company to shut it down May 7. The pipeline delivers about 45% of the gasoline, jet fuel and diesel used on the East Coast.

“Whew, crisis averted, that pipeline is back up,” tweeted Chris Horner, an attorney and former senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Now, back to our regularly scheduled agenda of shutting down pipelines.”

Conservatives have drawn links between the Colonial outage that transported refined fuels and President Joe Biden’s opposition to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline that would have ferried tar sands crude from Alberta to Nebraska. Even a fully operational Keystone XL would have had no effect on fuel supplies during the Colonial outage, since it would carry minimally processed crude, not gasoline and other refined fuel.

“The Colonial Pipeline closure should serve as a wake-up call to pipeline protesters who pretend we don’t need the energy transported by these pieces of critical infrastructure,” opined the Center of the American Experiment, a Minnesota-based conservative think tank. “We are as reliant upon oil and natural gas as we are water, and that reality isn’t going to change anytime soon.”

Refining advocates also used the fuel shortages to highlight the decline in fuel-making capacity in the Northeast. Where the East Coast previously had 12 refineries, closures have dropped that number to four. By some estimates, the Atlantic Basin has lost a total of 1.5 million barrels per day of refining capacity since 2008, making the region more reliant on imports and fuel transported by Colonial.

A New Jersey lawmaker pressed administration officials to address the decline during a briefing Wednesday. Each time a refinery closes, we’re losing the ability to fuel our defense, the unidentified lawmaker said, according to a person on the call.

The coal industry, whose chief product is a rock that can’t be carried by pipelines, used the incident to highlight the value of its fossil fuel. The National Mining Association, which represents companies such as Consol Energy Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp., promoted coal as a “valuable insurance policy in an era of emerging and deceptively dangerous threats.”

“It’s becoming clear that pipelines and just-in-time fuel delivery are a particularly vulnerable link in the equation,” the Washington-based trade group said in a statement Wednesday. “The months of fuel stored on site at coal and nuclear power plants add a layer of security and resilience we have long taken for granted and continue to undervalue.”

The Pipeline Crisis Is Over. Cue the Lobbyists and Their Agendas

Biden administration officials cited the crisis to highlight the president’s multi-trillion-dollar plans for investing in the nation’s highways, electric vehicle charging and the grid.

“This incident also reminds us that infrastructure is a national security issue, and the reality is that investing in world-class, modern and resilient infrastructure has always been central to ensuring our country’s economic security, our national security and, as we’re seeing right now, that includes cybersecurity,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at a White House briefing.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm noted at least one group hasn’t been affected by the pipeline outage and the fuel shortages it caused along the East Coast.

“If you drive an electric car this would not be affecting you, clearly,” she said during a White House briefing Tuesday.

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