A Tale of Two Calendars: Colonial Pipeline Explosion Causes a Second Gasoline Supply Disruption in Tennessee

By Ben Bolton, Energy Programs Administrator

November is Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Month, which builds awareness and appreciation for the essential services that serve as the backbone of our nation’s economy, security, and health.  We know it as the electricity we use, the water we drink, the transportation that moves us, and the communication systems that keep us in touch with friends and family.  These vital structures are a national security priority that requires planning and coordination at the regional, state, and local levels. 

Built in 1963, the Colonial Pipeline system connects Gulf Coast refineries with markets across the Southeast and East Coast U.S.  As the largest fuel-shipping pipeline in the nation by volume, it delivers 1.3 million barrels per day at 5 miles per hour along its route, terminating in the New York Harbor.   Colonial supplies more than 70% of liquid petroleum fuels (gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel) to Middle and East Tennessee (Energy Information Administration, 2016).

Site photo by Alabaster (AL) EMA on October 31, 2016.

Site photo by Alabaster (AL) EMA on October 31, 2016.

On October 31, about 4:00 PM Central, a Colonial Pipeline contractor crew was working on Line 1 (gasoline) in preparations to reconnect the main line from the bypass installed after the September leak.[1]  A trackhoe struck a below-ground, 36-inch steel transmission gasoline pipeline and ignited the gasoline inside the line.  The resulting explosion injured six, where five were transported to nearby Birmingham hospitals and one fatality occurred.  The incident occurred near Pelham, Shelby County, Alabama, about 5 miles west of the September leak site, which led to the recent gasoline supply issue in Tennessee.[2] The pipeline rupture resulted in a discharge of approximately 3,300 barrels (138,600 gallons) of gasoline, yet, fortunately, water quality testing showed no fuel in the Cahaba River, about a mile from the explosion, or in a creek feeding the river.

For nearly four days, the remaining gasoline was allowed to burn to allow quicker access onsite.   During the September incident, the high gasoline vapor concentrations prevented crews from accessing the leak site for several days.  Colonial, in conjunction with the local Emergency Management Agency and Incident Command, continued preparations to repair the line and restart by that weekend.  The use of unmanned surveillance drones allowed a quicker and safer visual inspection of the site.

In response to the resulting gasoline supply disruption, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) activated the Office of Energy Programs’ (OEP) Emergency Service Coordinators (ESCs), Ben Bolton and Jason Carney, to monitor the situation.   (OEP is responsible for the  Emergency Support Function 12 / Energy (ESF-12) mission related to transportation and heating fuels as defined under the Tennessee Emergency Management Plan.) Throughout the disruption, OEP’s ESCs communicated frequently with petroleum industry stakeholders and engaged with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Emergency Assurance Coordinator network.  These activities allowed OEP to keep public sector partners such as TEMA, Tennessee Department of Agriculture, various TDEC divisions (Office of General Counsel, Air Pollution Control, and Emergency Services) appraised of the market supply across Middle and East Tennessee and resolve any shortages.3-month-average-retail-price-chart

OEP worked with the industry stakeholders and partners to increase flexibility for sourcing gasoline to Tennessee.  On November 2, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture issued a waiver to allow a different blend gasoline (Class E gasoline up to 15 Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP)) to be used in Tennessee until November15, two weeks earlier than normal.  This action allowed retailers to transport gasoline from locations including Louisville and St. Louis into the state.

On November 3, the Tennessee Departments of Environment and Conservation Agriculture submitted a joint request to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue an emergency multi-state wavier of reformulated gasoline (RFG) requirements.  That same day, EPA issued the waiver through November 23 for select Clean Air Act-regulated areas within the affected states.  The RFG waiver also permits co-mingling of reformulated and conventional gasoline in the same pipeline for more delivery options.  For instance, Colonial was able to transfer gasoline upstream from the incident site into the Plantation Pipeline, which allowed deliveries to Chattanooga and Knoxville terminals.

Aerial photo of explosion site and surrounding wildfires (Jeremy Gray, AI.com, 10/31/2016)

Aerial photo of explosion site and surrounding wildfires (Jeremy Gray, AI.com, 10/31/2016)

Meanwhile, the gas associations released media statements urging the public to maintain typical fill-up behaviors, which allowed retailers to restock at normal levels.[3], [4]  The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office, released a statement saying after reviewing more than 600 complaints during the September incident, “Preliminary indications do not show a basis for price gouging” under the Price Gouging Act of 2002.[5]

TEMA and OEP discussed the different circumstances of this incident with media.  The shortages caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and by the Colonial Pipeline leak earlier this year both occurred in September when inventories are lowest to deplete lower-polluting summer blend fuel stocks and transition to cheaper winter blends.   Thus, inventories in early September 2016 were about 45 % less than normal when the previous Colonial leak occurred.[6]  Gas retailers reported the run of the pumps increased demand more than 50 % that next weekend.[7]  It is easy to understand why gas stations across Middle and East Tennessee may experience full outages during fuel disruptions in the month of September.  Average gas prices rose 10 to 30 cents per gallon in September 2016, yet gas prices only increased 6 to 10 cents per gallon during this incident.

The initial explosion resulted in 32 acres of forest fires (ABC 33/40, 10/31/2016)

Unlike the shutdown in September, Colonial repaired Line 1 permanently and successfully restarted it at normal flow at 5:45 a.m. CST, Sunday, November 6, only six days later.  The U.S. Department of Energy prioritized deliveries to Tennessee first to help prevent gas station outages, and within 24 to 36 hours, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville terminals received gasoline deliveries. As a result, inventory levels returned to normal a week later.

The State of Tennessee and gasoline wholesalers worked around the clock to keep this critical infrastructure system supplied with the fuel we all need.


Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health (CTEH®) employee Don Warren monitoring air quality at the incident site (Colonial, 11/2/2016)

Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health (CTEH®) employee Don Warren monitoring air quality at the incident site (Colonial, 11/2/2016)

Emergency Support Functions are mechanisms developed under the National Response Framework to provide federal, state, and local governments a common language and organization structure for responding to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other catastrophic events. Each of the 15 ESFs has a corresponding organization or agency tasked with overseeing the preparedness, response, and recovery phases of incident management. Tennessee was one of the first to integrate the ESF concept and TEMA was tasked to manage the activities of the ESCs.

The purpose of ESF-12 Energy is to facilitate energy assurance in areas of the State affected by an emergency.  While TVA is responsible for electricity generation and the electric grid, OEP has primary responsibility for monitoring the status of the transportation and heating fuel distribution network, and, if necessary, coordinating the State response to fuel disruptions. Working with our public sector partners, such as TEMA, the Governor’s Office, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce and Insurance, and the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, the State is able to convene the necessary government agencies and private sector stakeholders to ensure a continuous supply of transportation and heating fuels to citizens throughout the State.

If you would like to learn more about ESF-12, please contact ben.bolton@tn.gov (Primary ESC for ESF 12).

Anticipated delivery times after Colonial successfully restarted Line 1 (Colonial Pipeline, 11/06/2016)

Anticipated delivery times after Colonial successfully restarted Line 1 (Colonial Pipeline, 11/06/2016)

[1] Colonial Pipeline. (2016, November 6) Alabama Response Incident Update

[2] Energy Information Administration. (2016, November 3) Major gasoline pipeline in Southeast disrupted for second time in two months

[3] Arrandondo, Briona, and Heather Hourigan. WSMV Nashville (2016, November 1) Drivers urged to continue normal fuel habits following pipeline explosion.

[4] Christen, Mike. The Daily Herald (2016, November 1) Alabama gas pipeline in flames, drivers urged to avoid run on fuel.

[5] Alvarez, Matt. Fox17 Nashville (2016, November 3)  TN Officials: No basis for price gouging after September Colonial Pipeline break.

[6] Sisk, Chaz. WKNO NPR (2016, November 4) A Look at the Calendar may help explain why the latest pipeline breach hasn’t caused panic.

[7] Siner, Emily. WKNO NPR (2016, September 23) How a gas shortage got worse with panic buying.


[Updated on December 1, 2016, to clarify U.S. Department of Energy’s role in the response.]