Daily Mail editorial: Appalachian energy: America needs you

A weakness in the United States’ energy producing, refining and delivery system was exposed by Hurricane Harvey striking and flooding the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast in late August.

Petrochemical refineries had to shut down for days, threatening a substantial percentage of the nation’s and Western world’s access to energy.

While the U.S. Gulf Coast energy hub manages relatively well during storms, still, the nation needs built-in redundancy to avoid potentially massive and dangerous energy outages, as well as to increase competition and bring down the cost of U.S. manufacturing.

“In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the region’s refining capacity, production and pipeline operations,” wrote Jason Bordoff Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

“The industry learned critical lessons about resilience from the deadly storms, but the years since have seen massive changes to the sector ... The growing concentration of energy infrastructure — production, refineries, processing and petrochemical plants, storage terminals, ports and more— in the Gulf Coast creates a vulnerability for the U.S. and the world,” Bordoff said.

For instance, during the peak impact of Hurricane Harvey, 10 U.S. oil refineries were shut down, representing a combined capacity of more than 3 million barrels per day, or more than 16 percent of total U.S. refining capacity.

That prevented Colonial Pipeline, which supplies nearly half of the gasoline and other refined petroleum products consumed along the U.S. East Coast, from being able to fully deliver to customers, causing fuel shortages and price increases along the way.

Fortunately, the refineries and pipeline came back online in a few days — in time to help replenish gasoline stores for Florida residents needing fuel to escape Hurricane Irma.

But the interruption shows the vulnerability of a substantial portion of America’s fuel supply, as well as the supply of many countries in Latin America who rely on refined petroleum products from the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Prolonged outages may cause severe hardship and disruption for the hundreds of millions of people who rely on those fuels for their homes, jobs and standard of living.

“The U.S. has 141 operable oil refineries today, which is 79 fewer than 30 years ago,” wrote Spencer Jakab in the Wall Street Journal. “The heaviest concentration is along the Gulf Coast where the industry has deep roots ...”

So where can America find the answer to strengthen its refining capacity and energy infrastructure to make it less vulnerable to what may be increasingly intensive and frequent storms along the U.S. Gulf Coast?

Right here in Appalachia — another place where the energy industry has deep roots. With the natural gas-rich Marcellus and Utical shale formations of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, our region has the natural resources, the know how, and a location safely away from cyclone activity.

Many are promoting the idea of a public/private partnership to locate a storage and trading hub for natural gas liquids in the region.

“A hub would ... be in the nation’s interest as Appalachia’s abundant natural gas resources and location near the Midwest and East Coast could make the area a top national center for the U.S. petrochemical and plastic resin manufacturing industries,” wrote four U.S. senators, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, for The Bipartisan Policy Center.

“Ultimately, the region could rival the Gulf Coast as a center of the petrochemical industry,” they wrote.

Building the hub and increasing our region’s energy production, refining and delivery capacity will help the United States and world better weather future storms. And it will provide a wealth of economic and social benefits to our region.

Lawmakers, investors, energy companies and residents are all urged to push the hub forward, for everyone’s sake.

This editorial appeared in the Daily Mail editorial section of the Charleston Gazette Mail. Click here to read it on the publication's website.