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Bob Dinneen

Bob Dinneen

Posted: December 12, 2008 05:39 PM

Shipping Ethanol on Gasoline pipelines: They Said it Couldn't Be Done


For years, ethanol skeptics and critics have dismissed the possibility of shipping ethanol from major producing areas in the Midwest to consuming areas on the east and west coasts. One challenge is the fact that much of our nation's existing oil pipelines run from the Gulf Coast, where oil refineries and ports are located, to the Midwest and the Northeast. There are currently no pipelines running east and west from America's heartland. However, with growing ethanol production and use, it is becoming economically feasible to send large shipments on pipelines to replace the gasoline manufactured from imported oil.

Several days ago Kinder Morgan, a large Houston pipeline company, began successfully transporting ethanol through a gasoline pipeline in Florida. The company spent $10 million to upgrade the pipeline with special seals, gaskets and other parts to deal with the chemical differences between gasoline and ethanol. The 85 mile pipeline is transporting ethanol, which is shipped by rail or barge from plants in the Midwest, and gasoline from Tampa to Orlando. This is welcome news.

To all those naysayers who said it couldn't be done, Kinder Morgan decided it could and is now the first company shipping ethanol by pipeline in the United States. Further, the company is now doing tests on a longer pipeline between Mississippi and South Carolina.

Now that Kinder Morgan has demonstrated that ethanol can be shipped on oil product pipelines, two other companies, Magellan and Buckeye, are studying whether they can ship ethanol from the Midwest to New York Harbor, a distance of 1,700 miles. These companies are analyzing the economics of building a pipeline that could have the capacity to supply more than 10 million gallons of ethanol per day, enough to provide fuel to millions of northeastern motorists who purchase gasoline blended with ethanol. And the nation's largest oil products pipeline, The Colonial Pipeline Company, is exploring the opportunity to move ethanol in its 5,500 miles of pipeline. According to Colonial spokesperson Chad Zmarin, "Ethanol is now transported on railways and roads, but there is growing interest in the use of pipelines. We want to be able to safely ship any and all types of fuel."

As America expands its ethanol industry with increasing production from wood chips, switch grass and other renewable cellulosic materials, shipping this domestic biofuel by pipeline will become as common as shipping it by rail and truck.