Oil and gas pipelines have become flash­points in dis­cus­sions of cli­mate change. From the Atlantic coast to the Dako­tas, pipelines that would deliv­er fos­sil fuels to cus­tomers have sparked protests and legal chal­lenges. The Key­stone XL pipeline, which was designed to car­ry oil from Alber­ta tar sands to refiner­ies on the U.S. Gulf Coast, roiled U.S.-Canadian rela­tions for a decade before it was final­ly can­celed in 2021.

Amid these debates, it’s easy to for­get how heav­i­ly the U.S. econ­o­my relies on exist­ing ener­gy pipelines. In 2020 some 84,000 miles (135,000 kilo­me­ters) of long-dis­tance pipelines car­ried crude oil, while anoth­er 64,000 miles (103,000 kilo­me­ters) of pipe moved refined prod­ucts, includ­ing gaso­line and jet fuel.

These sys­tems typ­i­cal­ly draw atten­tion only when they leak or are dam­aged. For exam­ple, in May 2021 the Colo­nial Pipeline made head­lines when a cyber­at­tack shut it down, inter­rupt­ing gaso­line sup­plies along the East Coast.

Iron­i­cal­ly, this net­work orig­i­nat­ed as the solu­tion to a press­ing ener­gy prob­lem and was ini­ti­at­ed over objec­tions from the oil indus­try. In 1942 Germany’s U‑boats brought World War II to the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, sink­ing dozens of mer­chant ships, includ­ing oil tankers. That dam­age spurred con­struc­tion of the first large U.S. pipelines, which fueled the Allied war effort.

Tankers at risk

Petro­le­um cur­rent­ly sup­plies about one-third of U.S. ener­gy con­sump­tion. Much of it is deliv­ered by pipeline. It would take at least 750 tanker trucks per day, load­ing up and mov­ing out every two min­utes, work­ing 24 hours a day, sev­en days a week, to car­ry as much oil as even a mod­est pipeline.

In the 1800s much U.S.-produced oil came from wells in Penn­syl­va­nia and Ohio. How­ev­er, when prospec­tors struck oil in Spindle­top, Texas, in 1901, the indus­try shift­ed to the Lone Star State.

These fields pro­duced much of the gaso­line that fueled the auto­mo­bile rev­o­lu­tion, using nar­row-bore pipes to move crude over dis­tances of a few miles from wells to refiner­ies or rail­roads. To get oil to big refiner­ies in the North­east, Texas com­pa­nies relied on tankers that sailed through the Gulf of Mex­i­co and up the Atlantic coast. By the late 1930s these ships trans­port­ed 95% of Amer­i­can petro­le­um products.

Nazi strate­gists knew that sink­ing ships direct­ly off the coast would ter­ri­fy many Amer­i­cans. Imme­di­ate­ly after the U.S. entered World War II in Decem­ber 1941, U‑boats launched attacks on Amer­i­can coastal ship­ping. In Feb­ru­ary 1942 alone,  Nazi subs sank 12 tankers off the East Coast.

To avoid the U‑boats, oil com­pa­nies tried mov­ing crude by rail and barge. This lim­it­ed deliv­ery to 140,000 bar­rels a day, less than half of the 300,000 bar­rels need­ed to meet wartime demand at East coast refineries.

Pip­ing replaces shipping

In the spring of 1942, Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Harold Ick­es pro­posed con­struct­ing a large-diam­e­ter war emer­gency pipeline. The oil indus­try balked: It cost 16 cents a bar­rel to send oil by sea from Texas to New York, and exec­u­tives argued that build­ing pipelines would dou­ble the cost. When indus­tri­al and mil­i­tary needs for petro­le­um grew des­per­ate, the com­pa­nies relent­ed, part­ner­ing with the gov­ern­ment to build the new pipeline.

Engi­neers designed a giant con­duit capa­ble of sup­ply­ing oil need­ed for the war effort, far larg­er than exist­ing 8‑inch lines. Work­ers dubbed the 24-inch-diam­e­ter pipeline the “Big Inch.”

Con­struc­tion began in June 1942. Gov­ern­ment offi­cials chose an inland route, avoid­ing coastal states that might be vul­ner­a­ble to ene­my air attacks. The Big Inch was con­struct­ed in two sec­tions: one north from Texas to Illi­nois and anoth­er from Indi­ana east­ward. A sec­ond, 20-inch-diam­e­ter line, the “Lit­tle Big Inch,” was added in 1943.

These became the world’s longest pipelines, snaking across 1,340 miles (2,150 kilo­me­ters). The US$146 mil­lion project was one of the most expen­sive ini­tia­tives under­writ­ten by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment dur­ing World War II.

Oil began flow­ing in August 1943. Over the next two years, these two lines deliv­ered 300,000 gal­lons of oil per day to refiner­ies in New Jer­sey and Philadel­phia, which was then shipped over­seas. The U.S. ulti­mate­ly sup­plied 6 bil­lion of the 7 bil­lion bar­rels of oil used by Allied forces dur­ing the war. In 1945 Ick­es called the Big Inch one of the country’s “most potent weapons of war.”

The Big Inch was fea­tured in news­reel shorts with titles such as “Pipe Dream Comes True – Oil!” and “Oil is Blood.” But although it demon­strat­ed that large vol­umes of oil could be moved cross-coun­try, it didn’t cap­ture the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion like the atom­ic bomb, radar or penicillin.

In 1947 the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment sold the pipeline to the Texas East­ern Trans­mis­sion Cor­po­ra­tion. It still car­ries nat­ur­al gas from Texas to the Northeast.

Long-dis­tance pipeline con­struc­tion accel­er­at­ed in the 1950s and 1960s as the tech­nol­o­gy improved and oil demand grew. More than half the exist­ing U.S. fuel pipeline net­work was built before 1970.

Map showing pipelines from Texas to mid-Atlantic coast.
Map show­ing pipelines from Texas to mid-Atlantic coast.

Climate change, the next target

Today the ene­my is cli­mate change, and pipelines are in the crosshairs as part of the fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion and deliv­ery sys­tem. Pipeline projects also are more con­tro­ver­sial because they now are sub­ject to envi­ron­men­tal impact assess­ments. These reviews ana­lyze how build­ing the pipelines could affect local water sup­plies, wildlife, near­by his­toric sites near­by and oth­er facets of the com­mu­ni­ties they pass through.

Debate over the Key­stone XL pipeline shows how the frame­work for con­sid­er­ing pipeline projects has expand­ed. Oppo­si­tion to the $8 bil­lion, 1,200-mile pipeline focused on safe­ty con­cerns, its route across Indige­nous lands, destruc­tion of bore­al for­est and the large car­bon foot­print of oil from tar sands.

The lat­est con­tro­ver­sial project is the Enbridge Pipeline 3 replace­ment, which would replace 337 miles of an exist­ing pipeline run­ning through Min­neso­ta. Oppo­nents argue that the project, which would dou­ble the old line’s capac­i­ty to car­ry tar sands oil from Alber­ta to the U.S., threat­ens Min­neso­ta wet­lands, vio­lates the treaty rights of Indige­nous peo­ple in its path and will help per­pet­u­ate tar sand extraction.

The Big Inch and its suc­ces­sors were 20th-cen­tu­ry tech­no­log­i­cal accom­plish­ments, but address­ing cli­mate change means turn­ing America’s engi­neer­ing tal­ents to equal­ly ambi­tious renew­able ener­gy projects. As a his­to­ri­an of tech­nol­o­gy, I look for­ward to see­ing new solu­tions emerge. What equiv­a­lents of the Big Inch will help win the war against cli­mate change?