The Big Inch vs. Keystone

Member Group : Lefty's Logic

A bipartisan effort during WWII resulted in the approval and construction of the Big Inch pipeline in less than two years. This is a study in contrast to the prolonged debate over the Keystone pipeline (Now in its fifth year of haggling!). The delay of Keystone reminds me of something John Adams said about the Continental Congress back in 1776, " Fiddle, piddle and resolve, not a damned thing do they solve!" Let’s review a column I wrote on the pipelines two years ago to illustrate the lack of progress by Congress and the President:

March, 2012

"The Washington crowd seems more determined than ever to be stuck on stupid. This time it involves the executive branch of government. President Obama, advised by those bright folks within the Beltway, decided to torpedo the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would have shipped up to 590,000 barrels per day of Canadian oil products down through the interior of our country to Texas refining facilities. Although this only represents about 10% of our foreign oil imports, it does represent nearly half of our net imports from the vulnerable Persian Gulf.

Despite several environmental impact studies and a cost/benefit analysis outlining acceptable risks, the President has turned thumbs down on the concept for fear of hurting our fragile environment. The President of the United States has the most difficult job in the world but sometimes we tend to over analyze an issue rather than observe and learn from the lessons of history. Let’s do it for him.

It’s early 1942 and the U-boat arm of the German navy is experiencing their second "Happy Times." The first occurred before our entry in WWII when the Germans were sinking British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic with impunity. The Brits finally developed an effective convoy system that ended their staggering losses when America entered the war in December of 1941. Badly needed crude oil was shipped from Texas ports to refineries on the East coast, but U-boats began sinking our tankers at an alarming rate. The German navy referred to this period as their second "Happy Times."

48 tankers sailing along the Atlantic coast en route to the refineries were torpedoed. The beaches ran black with crude. Something had to be done, so two pipelines were built through the interior of the country without the benefit of hand wringing or redundant environmental impact statements. The pipelines became known as the Big Inch and it’s companion project, the Little Big Inch. The lines were constructed during 1942 and early 1943 from Texas to New Jersey.

The project was the brainchild of President Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, A native Pennsylvanian who was born on a farm outside Hollidaysburg. Ickes had a no nonsense approach to public service that earned him the nickname, "Old Curmudgeon." Ironically, Harold Ickes was a Republican serving in a Democratic administration when national interest trumped partisan politics on both sides of the aisle.

The Big Inch was a 24 inch pipeline for crude oil, running from the East Texas oil field to a terminal in Illinois and later extended to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania where the line branched into 20 inch lines, serving New York, New Jersey, and Chester, Pa. The trench for the pipelines was three feet wide with four foot of cover, and crossed the Allegheny mountain range, through swamps and forests, under 30 rivers and 200 creeks and lakes.

The Inch lines traversed 95 counties in 10 states and was 1400 miles long. Over seven million yards of material were excavated by the eight, 400 man crews who averaged nine miles of pipeline per day. The laying of pipe began in August of 1942 and oil began flowing from Texas to Illinois on New year’s eve, 1942. The first crude arrived in Pennsylvania in August of 1943. Wow! This was a 20th century encore to our 19th century engineering miracle, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Both these projects harnessed the talent, energy and common goals of a government/industry partnership.

The Big Inch was capable of transporting in excess of 300,000 barrels of oil per day and guess what- The environmental impact of the project was less than the oil spill of one torpedoed tanker. Those were the days when Yankee ingenuity was allowed to flourish.

Today we couldn’t get the government review process completed in that time frame.

Mr. President, what’s to be learned from this history lesson? First, the dozens of harassing, overlapping government agencies operating today may be good for
employment statistics but they sure are sabots in the wheels of progress.
Second, Mother nature is more resilient than pseudo-environmentalists realize but those good intentioned folks seem to have a python’s death grip on your party. Once again let’s use history as a learning experience. Those 48 tankers torpedoed in early WWII resulted in millions of barrels of oil spilled on East Coast beaches but before war’s end in 1945, folks were swimming without evidence of the "Happy Times." The stuff is biodegradable and cleans itself up over time without our clumsy efforts. Maybe, in certain cases, the expenditure of megabucks might be better used compensating people whose livelihoods are temporarily interrupted rather than mopping up the last 1% of the spill. However, modern politics is 51% perception practiced by lawyers who don’t really
understand the laws of physics and chemistry so I suspect the silliness will continue."

Mr President, the third "Happy Times" could easily occur in the Straits of Hormuz. The abominable terms of the recent State Department negotiations with Iran make the United States even more vulnerable today in the Persian Gulf than in March of 2012 when I wrote the first pipeline column. Keystone is more important than construction employment, the cost of gasoline, or marginal environmental impact that would be less than one derailed train oil spill. It’s an important cog in our national Security.

Stratton Schaeffer
Retired Consulting Engineer and Farmer
February, 2014