Recent news and panic of a petroleum pipeline leak in Helena, Alabama (south of Birmingham) is making its way up the East Coast. The pipeline, owned by Colonial Pipeline Company, supplies some 40% of fuel to drivers from the Gulf of Mexico to New Jersey. More than 336,000 gallons of fuel have leaked so far and those estimates could still rise as more is learned about the leak. The pipeline has been shut down for repairs and therefore has reduced the supply of gasoline to certain markets in the Southeast.
The reports of the leak and supply constraints have drivers in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina resorting to panic about gas availability and price hikes. Pictures of long lines at gas stations and high prices are circulating on social media with concerns about price gouging. The most widespread image, that I’ve seen anyway, was from Woodstock, GA showing $9.99. The price is actually not what the station is charging but this is a default price that gas stations post to indicate that they are out of fuel. This station in Woodstock was not the only station to entirely run out of fuel—numerous stations around Atlanta and North Georgia, all across North Carolina, and even some in South Carolina have completely run out of gas. While there is a sensational narrative circulating in the press and on social media, prices in Atlanta are hovering around $2.40 a gallon. State laws, including in Georgia and North Carolina, prevent (or should) price gouging during a “state of emergency,” which has been declared in six states in the wake of this pipeline disaster.
This incident is yet another reminder of the consequences of perpetuating fossil fuel use. Just four months ago, we wrote on a spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
An issue that is not being covered very well in the media are the problems that this dependence on oil is really costing us. Our reliance on oil resources poses a huge risk to our environment – from impacts to our waterways to the air that we breathe. It’s contributing to land degradation, public health problems, and global warming. The associated costs are also crippling to our pocketbooks and the economy as a whole — from the costs of environmental clean-up to the medical costs associated with the health impacts from air pollution. The Cahaba River, located adjacent to the pipeline spill, is home to several endangered and threatened species and potentially at risk. While it has been reported that the spill is currently contained to a mining retention pond, the problem could grow if additional solutions are not identified soon.
Also concerning is that an oil leak was found more than a week before any big news reports made it out of Alabama, on September 16. On Colonial Pipeline’s response website, they note that the leak was discovered on September 9: “On Friday, September 9, 2016, a mining inspector in Shelby County, Ala., detected a gasoline odor on mining property. He alerted Colonial Pipeline, which operates two pipelines in the immediate vicinity. Both pipelines were shut down as a precaution and Colonial employees were dispatched for a visual survey of the site.” Why did the company not know about the leak previously and how long had this been going on before inspectors even detected it?
Moreover, this isn’t the Colonial Pipeline’s first huge spill. They were found criminally negligent after a 1996 disaster in upstate South Carolina, which spilled almost a million gallons of toxic diesel into the Reedy River, killing tens of thousands of fish, and resulting in over $50 million in fines and settlements.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also issued Colonial Pipeline a waiver that allows them flexibility to sell other gasoline products that they may not typically sell or be allowed to sell. These allowances or concessions could add to the environmental consequences of these incidents.
We have an opportunity to learn from this incident. The panic resulting in gas shortages shows just how over-reliant our economy is on petroleum fuel and how this reliance creates fragility. Let’s be honest folks, not all the people in lines are on empty. One incident in one pipeline creates not just an environmental disaster, but also threatens to screech our lives to a halt without the ability to obtain the fuel we need. Imagine if the disaster were worse—if the damage to the pipeline were more severe or if multiple pipelines or other pieces of fuel infrastructure were taken offline.
We need to wean off our complete reliance on oil and commit to a diversity of solutions to improve how we travel. We need to ensure that federal goals for more fuel efficient cars and trucks continue to move forward so we can go farther on a gallon of gasoline. The truth is, most American drivers travel less than 60 miles a day during the week, so even if they have a ½ or ¼ of a tank, there should be no need for panic. Drivers should get by for a few days.
Those of us who drive electric vehicles snickered a bit when the panic began. In tracking EV Facebook sites, you can find numerous posts poking fun at the long lines at fuel stations or driving quietly by gas stations. We need to stop doubting the role of electric vehicles (EVs) in meeting our transportation needs and move aggressively in building out infrastructure and supporting policies and programs that put them on, at least, a level playing field with the oil industry. They are better for the environment with less risk. We must also recognize the benefits of increased transit, alternatives like biking and walking, and improved city planning.
We’ve had these wake up calls before, but it takes just a few days before people are back to driving inefficient vehicles and not thinking about the consequences throughout the fuel pipeline of filling up their gas tanks. Let’s not make that mistake again.
Thanks to Chris Carnevale for also contributing to this post.