Fact Check: Pipelines around the globe

Obama claimed that during his administration enough oil and gas pipelines have been added to circle the Earth. But it’s kind of meaningless — and it’s missing some important context.

Obama made this claim in order to rebut suggestions that the administration is opposed to building pipelines, principally the Keystone XL pipeline. The circumference of the Earth at the equator is 24,091.55 miles, so we will use that as our guidepost.

The president is making this claim based on two years of data posted on the Web site of the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (2011 is not yet available). The data show that from 2008 to 2010, total oil and gas pipelines have increased by 27,899 miles. So that’s circling the globe.

Case closed? As readers of this column well know, we are also interested in context and whether facts are meaningful. This is where the president ends up on shaky ground.

First of all, the total number of pipelines in 2008 was about 2.38 million miles. So that means that Obama’s gain over two years amounts to a little over 1 percent of that total. That sounds much less impressive than “circle the Earth.”

In fact, compared to George W. Bush, Obama’s overall total is not that impressive. PHMSA only shows data for gas lines (not crude oil pipelines) going back to 2001-2002, the first two years of Bush’s administration. But even that limited data set shows the number of pipeline miles increased by 122,000 miles in that two-year period. That’s five times around the globe!

In the first two years of Bush’s second term, for which we also have data on crude oil and petroleum pipelines, Bush’s overall mileage increased 60,000 — twice around the globe.

If you focus just on oil and petroleum pipelines, Obama actually has a somewhat better case: The total went up almost 7,000 miles, for a gain of 6 percent, in 2009 and 2010, whereas it was basically flat in the first two years of Bush’s second term. But a large chunk of that increase — more than 2,000 miles — came from the start of the original Keystone pipeline that Bush’s State Department had approved in 2008.

Obama, however, can claim credit for the 1,000-mile-long Alberta Clipper pipeline that the State Department approved in 2009 and which was completed in 2010.

Nevertheless, the bulk of Obama’s gain — 19,500 — came from gas transmission lines, essentially natural gas piped into homes and buildings.

By and large, these pipelines require approvals from states and municipalities, and also the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency. Petroleum-related pipelines, meanwhile, require state approvals — or federal environmental or Army Corps of Engineer approvals — unless they cross international lines, at which point presidential approval is required.

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