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Editorial & Opinion

May 22 - COMMENTARY: Pipeline Poppycock Needs Airing

Category: Editorial & Opinion

By Lou Phelps, Publisher, Coastal Empire News

 May 20, 2015 - Sometimes there is real baloney going on in politics and backroom deals in Georgia, and this may be one of those times.

The Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT), a state agency which lacks a plan for a modern transportation system in this state, has issued a rapid decision in less than 90 days that an underground fuel pipeline is not necessary to transport fuel for those of us living in Coastal Georgia.  It has been proposed by Kinder Morgan.

As an environmentalist, when I hear the word “pipeline,” I immediately feel negative; and, like all of us, I see TV shots of an oil spill on the California coast by a different firm and have the initial reaction to reject the idea of a pipeline.  But, the Kinder Morgan proposal for a Coastal Georgia underground fuel pipeline needs consideration.

The DOT is apparently comfortable moving fuel with 72,000 tanker trucks annually into our area versus an underground pipeline to serve Coastal Georgia counties, a pipeline that will also bring in competition.

In our opinion, Colonial Oil, which is the sole local fuel distribution company in the Savannah metro area – or Coastal Georgia - clearly does not want the competition from an underground pipeline, and has been allowed to define the debate.  They have actively worked with environmental groups fighting a pipeline. 

Did the DOT sit down with fuel purchasers in this area to discuss current fuel availability problems, and projected future needs?  No.

And the DOT, sitting in Atlanta, a region which HAS an underground pipeline to bring in a large percentage of its fuel needs, is once again failing to address the deteriorating quality of life issues we face on the coast.

We are trapped in Savannah by trucks that clog our two, over-capacity roadways, I-16 and I-95. 

Daily, there are pileups that halt or slow traffic.  Fatalities are becoming commonplace with another horrible loss of five lives this week on Tuesday. Three weeks ago, we had five young nurses killed in a mashup of trucks at 5:45 a.m. on I-16.

Last week, I drove through Ohio and Indiana, states with high paying manufacturing jobs and a modern highway system.  In and out of their metro areas, there are state and federal highways which are effective distribution arteries. 

Their principal highways are three to four lanes wide in both directions, with paved emergency lanes on both the interior and exterior, and modern lighting at exit ramps.  The State and Feds still haven’t put lights at the I-95/ I-16 intersection.

In addition, most state and federal highways in those states have a concrete divider to stop tired truckers and drunk drivers from crossing into ongoing traffic. 

Their highways have towers for cell phone service, allowing business executives and truckers to get work done. 

The lack of a modern road system and abysmal cell service in Georgia impedes business growth and public safety. 

Was it a factor in losing the Volvo plant this month?  It may have been if they tried to travel on I-16 at the wrong time of time, including bumping along on our roads that are long overdue for resurfacing.

Yet, in less than 90 days, since Kinder Morgan made its request on Feb. 15 for a ‘Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity’ for a pipeline, the Georgia DOT Commissioner has issued a decision that there is no need for an underground fuel pipeline – the method by which 70% of the fuel in the U.S. is transported, stating it will provide no benefits to consumers in Georgia.  

This isn’t about “Georgia”.  This is about Coastal Georgia.  Atlanta has an underground pipeline. So, let’s focus on the “necessity” aspect of his decision.

In explaining his decision, Commissioner Russell McMurry does NOT address: 

  • The current annual volume of trucks driving through Chatham, Effingham and Bryan Counties
  • Projected growth in truck and vehicle volume in Coastal Georgia through growth of region and the I-95 corridor. 
  • The current total annual number of trucks used to bring in gasoline, diesel and other fuel products from Macon, No. Augusta or out-of-state sources that could be transported through a pipeline.
  • Projected growth in truck traffic over the next 10 years due to the growth of the Georgia Ports, both in the Savannah and Brunswick areas.
  • Funded and approved widening of I-16 and I-95 or anticipated expansion of emergency lanes on both the interior and exterior of I-16 from Macon to Savannah.  (None?)
  • - And what happens if Colonial Oil, the only company in the Savannah region with storage tanks for fuel, decides it doesn’t want to sell to its competitors? What if that company is sold?    It already charges higher rates than sources in Macon and No. Augusta to retailers who compete with its Enmark stations.

CEN has asked for the data he used on these issues, and so far, received no response.

Local Fuel Truck Facts

Here are some facts we have learned:   Currently, at least 80 percent of the motor fuel in the 23 counties of the greater Coastal Georgia area is delivered to wholesale and retail outlets by 10,000 gallon tanker trucks that can handle maximum weight limits of 8800 gallons of gasoline or 7500 gallons of diesel.  

As a result, it takes 198 truckloads of motor fuel and 198 return trips daily, 365 days per year, to serve the needs of these counties.  That’s 72,270 fuel trucks on the highways.

The pipeline will significantly reduce the number of truck miles driven to get fuel to customer outlets.  A new pipeline terminal near Savannah will put at least 17 Southeast Georgia counties closer to a pipeline terminal than they are now, which will reduce tanker miles driven. 

A pipeline terminal at Jacksonville will put at least 7 additional Georgia counties closer to a pipeline sourced terminal.  Fewer truck miles driven means lower probability of traffic accidents and less wear and tear on Georgia’s highways.

Without the pipeline, Kinder Morgan projects that it will take 43 percent more trips by 2040. 

What if GaDOT is Wrong?

It takes from three to five years to build a pipeline – minimum – as there are many steps. The Certificate of Convenience and Necessity is just an initial step.  It does NOT guaranteed eminent domain control of land.  The actual right-of-way acquisition, a specific plan for the pipeline’s route and then many environmental review steps are ahead.  The pipeline can not be judged without the survey work.

Kinder Morgan has already received access to survey their land by 88% of the landowners along the proposed route. This is to survey, to look at soil and other conditions.  They are seeking to get authority to survey the additional 12%. South Carolina has granted them full access to survey.

Further – and this is biggest piece of poppycock – is the argument against the pipeline raised by William Morris III, the owner of the Savannah Morning News and the Augusta Chronicle.  He objects to the use of eminent domain to even survey his land. It’s just downright un-American, apparently.

Yet, 88% of the pipeline will co-exist along with other utilities, using underground rights of way that already exist, that have been obtained by private companies such as Georgia Power to bring us electricity.

And, does Mr. Morris believe that eminent domain should not be used where necessary such as to widen I-16 in the future?   Are we to be trapped here in Savannah behind a convoy of trucks from Savannah to Macon as the region and the port grows? 

In addition, we do not believe that GaDOT’s understanding of fuel pricing and consumer behavior into the future is equal to the financial pro forma work of a company such as Kinder Morgan that operates thousands of miles of fuel pipelines across the U.S.  They would not be seeking this investment in commercial fuel distribution options if they did not see a clear path to profitability, at least at this stage.  South Carolina and Florida have different laws when it comes to utilities and infrastructure. Their legislatures allow private companies and utility companies to do survey work for infrastructure, recognizing that otherwise things would not get built.

Bottomline?  Who is worrying about our Coastal Georgia transportation system, and who has a vested interest in stopping a new fuel distribution competitor along the Georgia Coast that may help remove a portion of our fuel trucks as well as lower fuel costs? 

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