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Molly Moorhead
By Molly Moorhead April 23, 2012

Obama says new miles of pipeline could stretch around the earth

President Barack Obama kept up the drumbeat for his "all of the above" energy strategy with a speech in the White House Rose Garden.

Addressing criticism that he has stood in the way of domestic production, in the April 17, 2012, speech Obama said the opposite is true.

"There are politicians who say that if we just drilled more, then gas prices would come down right away. What they don’t say is that we have been drilling more. Under my administration, America is producing more oil than at any time in the last eight years. We’ve opened up new areas for exploration. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth and then some," Obama said, with a nod to middle-school science class.

We've been hearing a lot about oil production recently and have checked several statements from Obama and Republicans on the matter. Here, we decided to check something we haven't heard before -- that the United States has added enough oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth since Obama took office.

First, it's important to note that it's unusual for presidents to become involved in decisions about pipeline construction, which is largely driven by whether the oil and gas industry is willing to make the large investment, an expert told us.

Obama rejected an expedited plan pushed by Republicans to build the Keystone XL pipeline, but he has also emphasized the importance of pipeline construction. He has said that domestic production exceeds current pipeline capacity and in March signed an executive order streamlining the permitting and construction process of a new crude oil pipeline to Gulf Coast refineries.

For this item, we’re not addressing whether Obama deserves credit for the pipeline because of the limited role presidents have. But we can check whether that much pipeline has been added.

To back up Obama's claim, the White House pointed us to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates pipelines.

The DOT figures were last updated in April 2012 with mileage figures through 2010. So they do not include pipeline that was added last year or this year.

Here's a comparison of the mileage at the end of 2008 (right before Obama took office) and the end of 2010:

Crude oil
2008: 50,963 miles
2010: 54,728


Petroleum products
2008: 61,599
2010: 64,752

+ 3,153

Natural gas transmission
2008: 303,182
2010: 304,691

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+ 1,509

Natural gas distribution
2008: 2,074,513
2010: 2,095,690

+ 21,177

That adds up to 2,490,257 oil and gas pipeline miles in 2008, and 2,519,861 in 2010.

So that's 29,604 additional miles of pipeline. According to NASA, the equatorial circumference of the Earth is 24,873.6 miles. Obama's comparison is accurate, and given that the latest figures only cover through 2010, the real, current figure is likely higher.

We asked two experts if the year-to-year comparison of pipeline miles is a valid measure and if anything else should be considered.

Jay Hakes, former director of the Energy Information Administration under President Bill Clinton, said the data are reliable and "as near as I can tell, the assertion is well documented and correct."

Tadeusz Patzek, chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out that many miles of those pipelines are "field/project gathering lines of small diameter and small throughput" -- not large transmission lines many of us think of.

He's right. According to the DOT numbers, 21,177 miles of the new pipeline are listed as natural gas distribution lines.

Still, such lines are "a necessary piece" of the whole system. Said Patzek: "Without the small stuff you’re not going to increase the flow rate through the large."

Is 29,604 miles over three years a lot?

For some perspective, we looked at the miles added during the last three years of George W. Bush's presidency. They tell a wholly different story: 63,243 new miles of small natural gas distrbution lines -- more than Obama's overall total. But crude oil? Just 756 miles. Petroleum products: 808 fewer miles in 2005 than in 2007. We're not suggesting Obama has done better than Bush in this regard. The comparison simply reinforces the point that oil and gas supply and demand, and the industry's response to it, results from decisions made far from the White House.

Our ruling

Obama said the U.S. has added enough pipeline in the last three years to circle the Earth "and then some." He is right about the mileage, though it includes not just large interstate transmission lines but also small pipes that collect gas from groups of wells and feed to the larger lines. But those pipelines are a link in the grid, and Obama didn't specify only large transmission pipeline.

The statement is accurate. We rate it True.

Our Sources, "Remarks by the President on Increasing Oversight on Manipulation in Oil Markets," April 17, 2012

Email interview with Clark Stevens, assistant White House press secretary, April 18, 2012

U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Natural Gas Transmission, Gas Distribution, and Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Annual Mileage, April 3, 2012, "Earth: Facts & Figures," accessed April 18, 2012

Email and phone interview with Tadeusz Patzek, chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, April 18 & 23, 2012

Email interview with Jay Hakes, former director of the Energy Information Administration, April 18, 2012, Executive Order -- Improving Performance of Federal Permitting and Review of Infrastructure Projects, March 22, 2012

Interview with Tamara Young-Allen, spokeswoman for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, April 19, 2012, Statement by the President on the Keystone XL Pipeline, Jan. 18, 2012

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