Pipelines Have a Role in Our Energy Present and Future

The small but vocal anti-pipeline chorus continues to grow louder every day in the wake of the Biden administration’s decision not to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline as it undergoes additional environmental review, which comes after nearly four years of safe operation. The high-profile project featured prominently in Earth Day demonstrations, trended on social media and sparked petitions calling for its closure. If pipeline opponents were hoping for a definitive statement in President Joe Biden’s first address to Congress, they were sorely disappointed.

Plain and simple, traditional fuels — which we all rely on every day — will remain in the picture for the foreseeable future. A majority of Americans recognize this, according to a recent Morning Consult poll in which 73 percent of respondents agreed that oil and natural gas will be part of the energy landscape for the next few decades.

Transitioning to a cleaner environment is an admirable and achievable goal, but one that cannot happen overnight. While strides are certainly being made in green technology, it takes time to develop, test and successfully implement that technology.

In the meantime, the International Energy Agency is predicting that global energy demand is poised for a 4.6 percent increase this year, with nearly 70 percent of that increase in emerging markets and developing economies. With emissions-cutting technology still being developed and renewables unable to meet this demand alone, we cannot slam the door shut on traditional fuels that are abundant, affordable and available.

Thanks to technological advances in hydraulic fracturing and investments in our energy transportation infrastructure and exporting capabilities, the United States has become a net exporter of both oil and natural gas, firmly establishing itself as a global energy powerhouse. Americans have been the beneficiaries of this good fortune, particularly when it comes to natural gas. According to the American Gas Association, homes which use natural gas for heating, cooking and drying clothes save $874 annually compared to those who use electricity.

The environment has also benefited, as natural gas is a cleaner burning energy source whose increased use has played a pivotal role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency gave due credit recently in its “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks” report, concluding, “Emissions decreased from 2018 to 2019 by 1.7 percent (after accounting for sequestration from the land sector)” largely due to “a continued shift from coal to natural gas and renewables in the electric power sector.”

To achieve our goal of a cleaner environment, we will need a combination of energy resources, including oil and natural gas. This means not only investing in green technology, but in our nation’s pipelines. Pipelines are the safest — and most environmentally friendly — means to transport affordable energy to Americans. They undergo a rigorous permitting and review process at the local, state and federal level to ensure the community’s safety. Lost in all the legal drama surrounding DAPL is the fact that it has operated safely for years, taking hundreds of tanker trucks and trains off our roads and rails every day — both an environmental and safety win.

Modernizing our pipeline system could also help the nation meet our environmental goals more quickly, according to a new paper from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The authors propose upgrading and retrofitting the 2.5 million miles of pipeline infrastructure throughout the nation for the future transportation of green fuels like hydrogen. They write, “These investments in existing infrastructure can support a pathway toward wider storage and delivery of cleaner and increasingly low-carbon gases while lowering the overall cost of the transition and ensuring reliability across the energy system.”

The bottom line: Pipelines are not only part of our energy present, but also have a role in our energy future.

If the world hopes to successfully reduce its emissions while continuing to grow the global economy, then all options must remain on the table — including affordable traditional fuels delivered safely through pipelines. Because at the end of the day, no number of protests, signs or petitions will change that reality.


Guy F. Caruso is a nonresident senior adviser in the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration from July 2002 to September 2008.

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