October 19, 2021

Pipeline shutdown exemplifies need for diversity

WASHINGTON — The serious impacts of the recent cyber attack brings to light the need for greater energy infrastructure diversity.

Geoff Cooper, Renewable Fuels Association president and CEO, said ethanol could have played a role in offsetting fuel supply shortages when the Colonial Pipeline was shutdown May 7 by a cyber attack that impacted computers managing the pipeline.

Colonial Pipeline originates in Houston and carries gasoline and jet fuel mainly to the Southeastern U.S. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., were impacted.

It was the largest cyber attack on an oil infrastructure target in U.S. history. The restart of the pipeline operations began on May 12 and the system and operations returned to normal on May 15.

“Hundreds of stations in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast literally ran out of gasoline. If you could find gasoline, in many areas there were long lines and panic buying,” Cooper said.

Soon after the pipeline shutdown, Cooper contacted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and asked EPA to suspend certain regulatory requirements that otherwise would impede and delay retailers from expanding the use of E15 to help offset fuel supply shortages.

“We have got to take additional steps to diversify our transportation fuel supply.”

—  Geoff Cooper, Renewable Fuels Association president and CEO

Cooper noted that some 180,000 barrels per day of ethanol production capacity is currently idle and could be “quickly activated or reoriented to help alleviate impending fuel shortages on the East Coast.”

“The message was let us help this situation. Let the ethanol industry ramp up production and help fill this void that has been created by this pipeline shutdown,” he said.

“We’re able to get our product to that market and really anywhere in the country via the rail network and we also ship a fair amount of ethanol by truck in local markets. We’re not reliant on a pipeline to get our product where it needs to go. We have multiple channels and multiple options for getting the product where it’s needed.

“We’ve asked EPA to really take just a few simple actions that would allow stations that are selling E10 today to turnaround and sell E15 immediately out of the same dispensers, same tanks that they’re selling E10 and allow that to continue for the foreseeable future. Just that extra 5% ethanol can really help extend fuel supplies in that part of the country and can buy the marketplace a little more time to get the pipeline back online and get things back in more normal order.”

Quick Flip

Cooper added that if EPA would suspend its regulatory paperwork, there are a number of retailers that could flip to E15 overnight.

“We’ve got 2.5 billion or 3 billion gallons of production capacity that today is sitting idle that could be activated pretty quickly to help out with the situation if EPA were to take these steps and help move things in the right direction,” Cooper said.

The pipeline shutdown was an example of the risk of relying on a single fuel source.

“This is yet another example of what happens when you put all of your eggs in one basket and when you are over-reliant on a single source of energy for transportation these are the sorts of things that can happen. We’ve seen these sorts of disruptions and volatility in the past. We have got to take additional steps to diversify our transportation fuel supply,” he continued.

“We have 200 ethanol plants scattered across the country that are strategic assets that should be better utilized and we should be relying on those assets that are better dispersed and aren’t tied to a single pipeline. We rely on the rail network and truck transportation to get our product where it’s needed. We’ve got to continue taking steps to further diversify our transportation fuels and create more flexibility in our infrastructure in this country.

“Those are the messages that we’re communicating to the administration and it’s especially timely because President Biden has proposed a substantial investing in sort of building out and fortifying our nation’s energy infrastructure. This Colonial Pipeline situation is yet another example of why we should be including biofuels and ethanol specifically, in the effort to expand and modernize our nation’s fueling infrastructure.

“We need to have diversity. We need to have a broad portfolio of options so when we have a hiccup in one segment of our transportation sector it doesn’t drag the entire economy down.”

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor