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U.S. Energy Boom Spurs Massive Demand For New Pipelines


The U.S. has enough oil, gas and other fuel pipelines to wrap around the earth more than a hundred times. But those 2.6 million miles of pipeline were built for a different era. And more pipelines - many more - would need to be built in the next 20 years to bring the system up to date.

Stephanie Joyce of a Wyoming Public Radio reports on the implications for the future of our energy economy.


STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: Driving across parts of Rocky Foy's property outside of Glendo, in eastern Wyoming, is like being on a roller coaster.

ROCKY FOY: See, here's another one, another one, another one, another one. (Laughter).

JOYCE: There are currently 11 pipelines crossing Foy's cattle ranch. They range in diameter from eight to 36 inches. The gravel road rises over each one of them and then drops back down as we bump our way toward pipeline number 12, which is currently under construction.

FOY: They're just clearing the dirt. You can see there where they're clearing the right of way.

JOYCE: The 12-inch crude pipeline nicknamed the "Double H" will carry oil from the Bakken in North Dakota to a pipeline hub in southeastern Wyoming. It's one of three major crude oil pipelines built out of North Dakota this year. By 2016, another three are planned, with a combined capacity of the embattled Keystone XL pipeline. Justin Kringstad, with the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, says companies are building as fast as they can.

JUSTIN KRINGSTAD: North Dakota, in 2012, put over 2,400 miles of new pipe into service. And when you think about - that's the distance from Los Angeles to New York City - in one year's time frame, all taking place within the state of North Dakota.

JOYCE: How much more will be built? It's hard to say. Kringstad says his first attempt to predict Bakken oil production back in 2008 was so, so wrong.

KRINGSTAD: It's almost laughable that we had such low expectations.

JOYCE: The uncertainty is common across most shale formations, from Pennsylvania to Colorado to Texas. And that complicates the task of estimating how much pipeline will be needed. But the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America tried. And the number it came up with is staggering - half a million miles of new pipeline by 2035. That's 20 trips around the Earth and then some. Don Santa is the Association's president. He says that's because where the oil and gas is being drilled today is just not where it's been drilled in recent history. For example...

DON SANTA: The historic patterns were for natural gas to be produced along the U.S. Gulf Coast and in the Southwest and transported via long-line pipelines to get up to the markets in the northeast, for example.

JOYCE: But that's all changed with drilling in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

SANTA: We're actually seeing the need for pipeline capacity to take natural gas from the Northeast and take it down to the Southeast and the Gulf Coast to the markets down there.

JOYCE: And just like in North Dakota, a glut of pipeline projects have been proposed to do just that. In total, Santa says, investment in midstream infrastructure over the next 20 years - that's pipelines, transportation and storage facilities - will total half a trillion dollars. That's trillion with a T.

The last time there was that kind of investment in pipelines was after World War II. And just like highways committed us to cars, those pipelines shaped the nation's energy mix for decades to come.

JOSEPH PRATT: There are pretty fundamental choices being made right now about the fuel of the future.

JOYCE: Historian Joseph Pratt says that means that even though for most people pipelines are out of sight and out of mind, we should all be thinking about them more.

PRATT: These infrastructure questions are the first volley in the contest over which fuels it will be.

JOYCE: As in renewables or fossil fuels. And for now, there's no question about the choice that's being made. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce in Wyoming.

BLOCK: That story came to us as part of Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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