An Energy Transition by War-Scale Action: Here’s What That Looked Like in WWII Philadelphia

War-emergency pipelines constructed with federal funding in the 1940s transformed the energy landscape of the Mid-Atlantic. This historical case study provides insight into today’s global energy transition.

This blog is a part of a larger research project that explores the history of Philadelphia’s energy transitions. It was written under the supervision of Prof. Jared Farmer.

In recent years, proposals for a “Green New Deal” have been in the policy limelight. Advocates have called on the U.S. federal government to fight climate change by mobilizing state resources on a scale unseen since World War II, using investments in infrastructure to accelerate decarbonization.

To better understand the comparison between wartime policy and climate policy, it is useful to examine how midcentury Philadelphia experienced an energy transition driven by a massive federal project—specifically, a pair of natural gas pipelines.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. government was motivated to maximize wartime production at any cost. War-driven economic expansion had already stretched fuel demand beyond capacity in industrial centers like Philadelphia. To make things worse, enemy action jeopardized the energy supply chain. As soon as Germany declared war on the U.S. on December 11, a U-boat fleet set course for the East Coast on a mission called Operation Drumbeat. The Nazis destroyed hundreds of tankers carrying crude shipments from the Gulf.

The Department of the Interior responded to the oil shortage with pipeline construction. In June 1942, the powerful War Production Board, operating from the White House, allocated the necessary steel for two pipelines: the Big Inch and the Little Big Inch. The Big brought crude oil more than 1,300 miles from Texas to Philadelphia refineries; the Little Big carried refined petroleum products from the Gulf Coast to New York City.

After WWII, the Executive’s “war emergency” power continued to be invoked in the gas industry. Through a political process, the War Assets Administration sold the two pipelines. In 1947, Texas Eastern won the bid at $143 million, and converted the Inch pipelines into peacetime natural gas service.

Texas Eastern targeted southeastern Pennsylvania as its first gas market. The Commonwealth’s coal interests fought to protect the existing fuel source. Senator Francis J. Myers from Philadelphia urged Congress to give the anthracite industry “a fair chance to defend its life” by forbidding the delivery of piped gas.

On the other side, Philadelphia mayor Bernard Samuel and Governor James H. Duff gave their wholehearted support to the natural gas transition. The conflict ended when politicians aligned with Texas Eastern pushed an eminent domain bill through Congress via an amendment to the Natural Gas Act. Texas Eastern used this new power to sign contracts with Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) and Philadelphia Electric (PECO). These utilities received their first supplies in September 1948, making Philadelphia the first eastern city to receive natural gas from the Southwest.

These events define a decisive midcentury energy transition. Philadelphia was the leading city in the leading coal state—indeed, American’s original fossil fuel state. Municipally owned PGW, established in 1836, made Philadelphia a stronghold of coal-manufactured gas. But once that natural gas delivery began, market forces obviated the less efficient “town gas” process within one decade. In other words, the “war emergency” pipelines enabled a transition to a cleaner form of fossil fuel.

The Inch pipelines are still in use; their longevity and transformative impact now have implications for the next energy transition—that is, decarbonization. They could continue to deliver extracted natural gas, or, potentially, they could be converted to renewable natural gas (“green gas”) or hydrogen. History shows that when state resources are well directed, transitions can occur quickly. This is why Green New Deal proponents have used the language of war mobilization.

In the first two years of the Biden administration, the U.S. Congress failed to enact a Green New Deal, or even Build Back Better. Instead, it passed three semi-massive bills: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Chips and Science Act, and most recently, the Inflation Reduction Act. The first directs federal monies to local governments for shovel-ready projects, whereas the latter two use tax credits to encourage private investment in green technology. None of these bills replicate the WWII experience in scale or federal coordination.

Time will tell which of these three bills most accelerates the energy transition. If projected declines in emissions do not come to pass, a Green New Deal may yet have its day. It took decades of massive private investment, punctuated by intensive state planning, to de-coalify Philadelphia. It stands to reason that it will take commensurate effort—or more—to decarbonize the nation.

Marilyn Pereboom

Economics, School of Arts and Sciences
Marilyn Pereboom graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2022 with a major in Economics and a minor in Sustainability and Environmental Management. Presently she is Public Finance Investment Banking Analyst at TD Securities.