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Pipelines for War and Peace OPEN ACCESS

[+] Author Notes

Frank Wicks is a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering, an ASME Fellow, and an engineering professor at Union College, where he has performed research and instruction related to oil and gas pipelines.

Mechanical Engineering 138(07), 40-45 (Jul 01, 2016) (6 pages) Paper No: ME-16-JUL3; doi: 10.1115/1.2016-Jul-3

This article demonstrates the inevitability of pipelines for the development and growth of a city, state, or a country. During the World War II, the United States government produced and distributed posters, pamphlets, and movies to feature the heroic efforts of the workers and success of the pipelines. It inspired Americans on the home front and overseas. The potential of delivering substantial amounts of natural gas to the North overwhelmed the obstacles and conversion costs. A small group of oil industry investors started to raise money and formed the Texas Eastern Transmission Corp. New York City received natural gas for the first time in 1952. Seattle in 1956 became the last major city to receive pipeline natural gas.

These 24-inch pipes were stacked and ready to be assembled into the Big Inch Pipeline, in this 1942 image from the U.S. Farm Security Administration. Photographer John Vachon took this photo in Pennsylvania.

Grahic Jump LocationThese 24-inch pipes were stacked and ready to be assembled into the Big Inch Pipeline, in this 1942 image from the U.S. Farm Security Administration. Photographer John Vachon took this photo in Pennsylvania.

World War II was largely about oil, and fought with oil. The United States factories and work force, largely idled by the lingering Great Depression, would convert to the massive production of land vehicles, ships, and aircraft. These war machines were transported to combat zones, but would be worthless without oil.

Of the seven billion barrels of oil used by the Allies, 80 percent came from the United States, mostly from Texas and the Gulf Coast. Prior to the war, much of the crude oil and refined products had been transported by coastal tankers to the northeast and then shipped across the Atlantic.

War started raging in Europe in 1939. The United States remained officially neutral until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

When Hitler declared war on the United States a few days later, he gave Germany free rein for unrestricted warfare against United States shipping. U-boats were positioned along the coastal tanker route from the Gulf of Mexico up the Atlantic to New Jersey. Without any losses, the submarines sank or destroyed sixty tankers from January through April 1942.

Shipping oil by coastal tankers was abandoned. The alternative, transporting oil by rail, was more secure, but the capacity was limited.

Then an older, lapsed plan took on a new life. Two years earlier, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had proposed an oil pipeline from Texas to New Jersey. Ickes acknowledged it would be costly, but said that it might be necessary in case of war. Ickes had done some initial planning, but no action had been taken toward construction.

The Roosevelt administration not only decided to put Ickes's plan into action, but also gave him the additional title of Petroleum Administrator for National Defense, more popularly known as the Oil Czar.

The tanker Dixie Arrow was torpedoed off Cape Hatteras in March 1942. Oil transport by sea was perilous at the beginning of World War II.

Grahic Jump LocationThe tanker Dixie Arrow was torpedoed off Cape Hatteras in March 1942. Oil transport by sea was perilous at the beginning of World War II.

They wouldn’t be the country's first pipelines, but they would be the largest. Building them would be the largest joint government and private industry project to that time. Executives and engineers from 67 companies met in Tulsa in March 1942, organized by Elton Jones, who would later run the pipeline project.

The group decided to build two roughly parallel pipelines. The most direct route was surveyed by air. It would cross mountains and traverse swamps, rivers, and lakes, and tunnel under hundreds of railroad lines and highways.

Earlier pipelines were typically 8-inch diameter and of limited length. These would be much bigger.

One pipeline, with a 24-inch diameter pipe, would carry crude oil and was affectionately called the Big Inch. It would run 1,254 miles from the oil fields of northeast Texas to refineries in New Jersey. It reached a capacity of 325,000 barrels per day.

The second line, a 20-inch diameter pipe eventually named the Little Big Inch, would transport refined products over 1,475 miles from the Texas Gulf Coast to New Jersey. Its daily capacity would be 235,000 barrels, corresponding to 10 million gallons of gasoline. Both pipelines required many miles of smaller feeder lines from the wells at one end and to destinations at the other.

Once unloaded onto stringing trucks (top), the 40-foot sections of pipe are primed with hot asphalt paint (middle). A crew follows the machine and touches up by hand the space where pipe has been welded together (bottom).

Grahic Jump LocationOnce unloaded onto stringing trucks (top), the 40-foot sections of pipe are primed with hot asphalt paint (middle). A crew follows the machine and touches up by hand the space where pipe has been welded together (bottom).

Forty-foot sections of 3/8-inch seamless steel pipe weighing 4,200 pounds each were delivered along the route. They were coated, wrapped, and welded, and then lowered into 4-foot-deep trenches. The first section of the Big Inch was laid in August 1942, and the pipeline was completed in August 1943. The Little Big Inch started later and was completed in December 1943.

The project had required up to 15,000 construction workers, and a comparable number of engineers and supporting staff. Up to 10 miles of pipe were installed per day. Pumping stations were installed every 50 miles to boost the pressure, and to limit the peak pressure in the pipe. It was tested at 650 psi. Each pumping station required about 9,000 kW of electric power. This was a substantial portion of the available electric generation and transmission capacity along the route.

The United States government produced and distributed posters, pamphlets, and movies to feature the heroic efforts of the workers and success of the pipelines. It inspired Americans on the home front and overseas. These movies can now be viewed on YouTube.

While it was still being constructed, oil czar Harold Ickes was already planning the fate of the Inch pipelines after the war, when the coastal tanker routes would no longer be threatened. One possibility was to totally dismantle the lines. There was also a surplus of tankers. During the war years about 500 tankers had been built to supply fuel to the combat theaters and to naval ships at sea. These T2 tanker vessels would cost less to operate and provide more flexibility along the coastal routes.

Trench digging for the Pennsylvania section of the war emergency pipeline carrying oil from Texas fields to eastern refineries. The Big Inch was completed in August 1943.

Grahic Jump LocationTrench digging for the Pennsylvania section of the war emergency pipeline carrying oil from Texas fields to eastern refineries. The Big Inch was completed in August 1943.

An alternative proposal would be to convert the Inch pipes to transport natural gas. While oil wells in the southwest had ramped up wartime production, most of the gas that was a byproduct of these wells had nowhere to go. Huge amounts were wastefully flared at the well head.

Meanwhile, major cities in the north, including Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, had no natural gas. Heating was done mostly by coal furnaces. Dump trucks with sliding chutes would typically feed coal to a bin in the basement. A coal furnace had no automatic temperature control. A resident had the disruptive, dirty, and time-consuming duty of shoveling coal into a furnace a couple times a day, and carrying out the ash.

Virtually every large city and most towns and villages had installed coal-fueled manufactured gas plants, called gas houses. Those gas houses were responsible for emitting all manner of pollution, including heavy metals and sulfur. They produced a low-heat-content gaseous fuel. It was piped locally to industrial customers and to homes for cooking and hot water. Some was used for central heating, although it was cheaper to burn the coal directly in the boiler or the home furnace.

After disappearing for some decades, rail transportation of oil has seen recent increases.

Grahic Jump LocationAfter disappearing for some decades, rail transportation of oil has seen recent increases.

While conversion of the Inch lines to transport gas would be achieved, there were many obstacles, which are described in a book, From Texas to the East, by Christopher Castaneda and Joseph Pratt (Texas A&M University, 1993).

The conversion required a permit from the Federal Power Commission, which had originally been created to regulate interstate water and electricity. The commission wanted an assurance of a 20-year supply, which was hard to prove.

An even bigger barrier was the opposition of vested interests. Natural gas was correctly recognized as a serious economic threat to the politically powerful coal mine owners, miners, railroads, and manufactured gas companies, all of which lobbied aggressively in opposition to gas pipelines.

Conversion would also require modifications, including conversion of the liquid-pumping stations to compressors. Also, due to the lower density of natural gas relative to oil, the energy transfer capacity is lower for gas for a given maximum pipeline pressure.

However, the potential of delivering large amounts of natural gas to the North overwhelmed the obstacles and conversion costs. A small group of oil industry investors started to raise money and formed the Texas Eastern Transmission Corp.

The partners took the company public to raise more money. In November 1947 the corporation bought the Big Inch and Little Big Inch from the federal government for $143,127,000.

There was no going back after coal customers suddenly enjoyed the marvels of natural gas. It was the beginning of a rapid expansion of gas pipelines to the North, and other pipelines to the central cities and the West Coast.

New York City received natural gas for the first time in 1952. Seattle in 1956 became the last major city to receive pipeline natural gas. Coal-fueled furnaces and gas houses have become a distant memory, except in Seattle, where people enjoy life around preserved gasifiers in Gas Works Park.

Meanwhile, hydraulic fracturing over the last decade has increased crude oil production from the Bakken formation in western North Dakota from almost nothing up toward a million barrels per day. For the lack of a pipeline, most has been transported to the East and the South by railroad tanker cars.

There have been several spectacular and highly publicized accidents with fire and explosions. While the immediate response has been the need for rail repairs, lower speeds, and safer tank cars, a pipeline could prove even safer.

In January 2015 an application was filed for constructing a 1,134-mile crude oil pipeline of 30-inch diameter and capacity of 450,000 barrels per day from North Dakota to southern Illinois. It has an estimated cost of $3.7 billion.

Arguments against a pipeline often include concerns for environmental impact and loss of land, and those concerns may slow the project. But they probably cannot overcome the counterarguments in favor of the pipeline: jobs created, taxes to be paid, and energy independence.

“The only thing constant is change,” observed the Greek sage Heraclitus 2,500 years ago. He might use gas to prove his point. David Waples’ book, The Natural Gas Industry in Appalachia (McFarland & Co., 2012), describes early use of gas up to the recent revival by hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus shale. He notes curious developments in the use of gas: the Chinese, for instance, used bamboo pipes to direct gas from burning springs to produce salt by boiling the water out of brine. Commercial use of gas started in 1825 with street lighting in Fredonia, N.Y.

The bigger role for gas started in 1859 with the Drake Oil well in Titusville in northwestern Pennsylvania. The crude oil could be transported as a liquid and refined into lantern fuel, but dangerous amounts of gas were coming from the oil wells. It was flared, until pipes were laid to nearby Oil City for lighting in 1867. Threaded cast iron pipes competed with wooden pipes.

John Rockefeller extended his interests from oil to gas, and made Oil City the hub of his enterprises.

In 1884 George Westinghouse struck gas at 1,560 feet in the backyard of his Pittsburgh home. The well created a loud roaring noise and a spectacular 100-foot torch until a shutoff could be devised. Westinghouse proceeded to create a gas company, and was granted dozens of patents related to drilling, metering, regulating pressure, and installing pipelines. It can be speculated that Westinghouse's early experience in the gas industry provided insights and concepts for his better known pioneering achievements in electricity generation, transmission, metering, and use.

Natural gas produced in the Appalachian region supported much of the regional industry up through World War II. However, the wells were drying up and the new center of oil production had moved to Texas and surrounding regions.

George Westinghouse innovated with gas before his pioneering work in electricity.

Grahic Jump LocationGeorge Westinghouse innovated with gas before his pioneering work in electricity.

With the center of production shifting from Texas back up to Appalachia, major new pipelines and upgrades, with new issues, are needed for new markets. New England is a major growth market, but it must be routed through New York State, which has placed a moratorium on hydrofracking, due to environmental concerns. The intervening groups are now arguing that hydrofracked gas from elsewhere should not be piped through New York State.

Some proponents might also contend that the Big Inch and the Little Big Inch helped win World War II.

Copyright © 2016 by ASME
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