America’s aging energy infrastructure

 By Chris Dalby

The sorry state of America’s infrastructure came into tragic focus when lead-contaminated water was drunk by the people of Flint, Michigan, exposing 12,000 children to lead. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the country’s energy infrastructure a D+ in 2013, covering all aspects from the electricity grid to the ability to transport oil and gas. The real question today, as the world prepares for the next president, is whether the US, still in a fragile recovery, can afford to repair its energy infrastructure…

Franklin D. Roosevelt is considered to be one of the finest presidents the United States have ever had. This lofty status was not only granted him because of his courageous leadership during World War II but also because of the New Deal, the series of economic packages he crafted to bring the US out of the Great Recession.

A pillar of the New Deal was an ambitious plan to build a colossal amount of infrastructure, including roads, bridges, pavements, and all manner of buildings. Over this period, much of the US pipeline network was also built, chasing highways westward as opportunity opened up the country to mass transit.

While such a zeal for industry allowed Roosevelt to be immortalized in history, subsequent presidents have seemingly honored his memory without updating his legacy. Today, over 37 percent of pipelines across the country were lain down before 1960. A colossal 60 percent were installed before 1970.

The poor state of America’s infrastructure came into tragic focus when contaminated water was drunk by the people of Flint, Michigan, exposing 12,000 children to lead. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the country’s energy infrastructure a D+ in 2013, covering all aspects from the electricity grid to the ability to transport oil and gas. Pipes are corroded and leaking, dangerous minerals are infecting supplies, and significant power outages are on the rise.

President Barack Obama has sought to raise awareness of this problem, calling infrastructure repairs one of America’s greatest challenges but has been politically stymied. This has surprised observers since this should be an area in which both parties could agree.

Source: US Department of Energy

In April, Jason Bordoff, the founding director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said that “these aren’t things that should be partisan issues. It’s obviously hard to come up with money in today’s environment, but these are things that are necessary to do.”

The energy wastage from current infrastructure is staggering. A 2013 Senate report found that “Gas distribution companies in 2011 reported releasing 69 billion cubic feet of natural gas to the atmosphere, almost enough to meet the state of Maine’s gas need for a year.”

An issue that has overcome much of the goodwill toward fixing energy infrastructure in the sheer scale of the problem. Given the interconnection of pipes, pipelines and transmission lines across state lines, under lakes and rivers, and through deserts, tracking where the most serious issues lie is arduous at best.

President Obama has sought to measure the scale of the problem, a truly important task which led to detailed budget estimates. The government has taken on board ASCE estimates, which state that $57 billion is needed by 2020 to fix energy infrastructure. The Department of Energy estimates it must spend $3.5 billion over ten years to maintain natural gas pipelines. Stabilizing the current state of the grid would take another $5 billion and upgrading its capacity for the expected increase in renewable contributions would require an extra $3.5 billion.

The decisions of the next president will therefore be crucial to seeing these plans realized. Thankfully, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both on the same side of this issue. Clinton has stated she will “boost federal investment by $275 billion over five years and create an infrastructure bank dedicated to helping such improvements. Trump vows that in his first 100 days in office, infrastructure projects will be kick-started to be a major source of job growth.


However, will all this potential spending target only conventional areas of energy infrastructure, such as oil and gas pipelines, or will it seek an overhaul to better protect the environment and remove an element of risk for the American people?

For Jim Murphy, Senior Counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, “the efforts to protect the public against the risks of an aging pipeline system are not adequate. While it is important to do all we can to make infrastructure safer, the safest pipeline is the one that is not built. We must move away from oil and oil infrastructure and stop building pipelines that lock us into more long-term risk.”

This long-term risk is now increasingly being addressed at the local level, by municipal or state governments who seek to fix immediate problems. They rely on their own limited funds, as has happened in cities such as Atlanta, Seattle and Portland; in statehouses, Democrats and Republicans have seemed more eager to collaborate.

In 2014, state and local governments spent a combined $320 billion on infrastructure spending, as opposed to just $96 billion from Washington D.C.

In New York, a gas pipeline explosion which killed seven people seems to have sounded the alarm as the city and state have swung into action since. This became particularly needful after an investigation revealed some of the pipes involved had been lain down in 1887.

New York City put together a public policy initiative, which produced a 66-page list of emergency repairs and upgrades the city needed to make, which is currently being worked through.

This also directly led to the creation of the Pipeline Modernization and Consumer Protection Act, which would unlock matching federal and state contributions to renew pipelines. However, this bill has still not been passed, perhaps due to the aforementioned infighting.


SEE MORE: Building a pipeline by Nicholas Newman


Besides this, another suggested alternative is to sidestep the renewal altogether and simply phase out aging pipelines through the arrival of new technologies. Such a change would certainly be supported by organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation, whose Jim Murphy sees a shift in government mindset concerning pipelines.

“The denial of Keystone XL was extremely important. It marked – for the first time – the denial of a major fossil fuel infrastructure project due to concerns over carbon emissions,” said Murphy. “Since the rejection of Keystone, we have seen growing instances of fossil fuel projects…often being denied or cancelled,” he adds.

This is an area where Obama has been able to act with more prescience, albeit in innovative ways. The advance of wind and solar power in the US is well-documented but little coverage has been given to the fact that the current administration has also thrown its support behind nuclear.

The 2016 federal budget contained $900 million for “support of the civilian nuclear energy sector” while over 75 nuclear reactors saw their licenses renewed for another 20 years.

Nuclear reactors are not only seen as a safe option but there is a direct correlation between power plant activity and stress reduction on the pipeline network. In New England, where current pipeline infrastructure is under particular stress, the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in 2014 was harshly felt, explains Matthew Wald, ‎Senior Director, Policy Analysis at the Nuclear Energy Institute. The closure of the Pilgrim plan in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 2019 will only increase that stress.

“Pipeline expansion costs can be avoided by running nuclear plants,” says Wald, “but the savings don’t figure on the plant owners’ balance sheets.” He admits, however, that to see nuclear relieve existing energy infrastructure is a long-term objective. “In the short and medium term, the only help that nuclear can offer to the system is to continue operating plants. In the long term, we can build new plants, including small modular reactors, which will relieve the burden on the pipeline system,” adds Wald.

Naturally, given that Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island still echo in history, nuclear has not been a popular choice. A Gallup poll in March found 54 percent of Americans opposing nuclear power and 44 percent in favor.

However, as Wald points out, the industry has not been idle in upgrading itself. “Our companies spent $1 billion on post-Fukushima improvements in 2014, and an additional amount in 2015. In addition, the industry has established two national depots, in Memphis and Phoenix, each with several sets of equipment. This provides an additional layer of redundancy…to allow any plant to cope with what happened at Fukushima.”

The next president, whatever their choices in terms of America’s future energy infrastructure, will have their work cut out for them. Favoring the oil and gas industry will require untold billions in upgrades and replacements. Turning instead toward other horizons, such as expanding nuclear, will involve a public policy campaign to change the mindset of the American people. However, if the winning candidate is able to fulfill these pledges, they may come close to replicating the spirit of FDR’s New Deal.

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.