When one talks of pipelines in recent days one hears nearly an incessant buzz about Keystone XL, as if that is where the real action is. But it isn't, notwithstanding the histrionics over President Obama's veto of S.1, the Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act. The real action lies not with an 850,000 barrel per day oil pipeline, but instead with the natural gas pipelines that are needed to supply the natural gas electricity generating plants that will be required to replace, in part, 103 gigawatts of coal powered generation.

What are we talking about? Building Block 2 of EPA's Clean Power Plan posits the replacement of coal-fired generation with cleaner natural gas-fired plants. Natural gas plants are also part of the solution to compliance with the strict Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which are also driving coal plants off the grid.

But to get and keep those natural gas plants on-line, the natural gas needs to get there and to do that it needs a means of transportation, which for natural gas, means pipelines.

How many miles of pipelines are needed? EPA concluded: "the power industry in aggregate can support higher gas consumption without the need for any major investments in pipeline infrastructure." But the Nation's reliability watchdog, the North American Reliability Corporation, politely disagrees. In its November 2014 review, Potential Reliability Impacts of EPA's Clean Power Plan, NERC noted EPA's position, but then commented:

"there are a few critical areas that likely will need additional capital investments. As an example, current and planned pipeline infrastructures in Arizona and Nevada are inadequate for handling increased natural gas demand due to the CPP. Pipeline capacity in New England is currently constrained, and more pipeline capacity additions will be needed as more baseload coal units retire."

And that was not the end of it. NERC concluded that more pipeline capacity was needed independent of Clean Power Plan retirements.

Further, as should be obvious, pipeline construction will not occur in an instant. NERC points out that "it takes three to five years to plan, permit, sign contract capacity, finance, and build additional pipeline capacity." In other words, planning and permitting of new pipelines is required now if the EPA's initial 2020 compliance date is to be met. But as we reported in a recent post, States aren't even drafting their implementation plans, much less making determinations about what plants to shut down and where pipelines need to be built. Which suggests that we should ask the miles-of-pipeline-needed question again. We have not seen that number but NERC reports that, based on EPA's own estimates for plant retirements due to the Clean Power Plan and other regulatory requirements (primarily the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard), "the power industry will need to replace a total of 103 GW of retired coal resources by 2020, largely anticipated to be natural-gas-fired NGCC and CTs.

We tried to compare 103 gigawatts to Keystone XL's 850,000 barrels of oil per day. We came up with a rather stunning number: the energy needed to replace the to-be-retired coal plants is almost 2000 times more than Keystone XL can deliver.*

Which leads us back to the beginning of this post: the real action in pipeline permitting is going to be in natural gas.

*A barrel of oil contains about 1700 kW-h of energy. So Keystone XL will deliver 850,000 bbl x 1700 kW-h or 1.445 x 10e9 W-h in one day. 103 GW of coal plants operating for 24 hours yields 2472 x 10e9 W-h.