Ethanol Buzz Fuels Planning by Colonial Pipeline Company
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Ethanol Buzz Fuels Planning by Colonial Pipeline Company

Redlands, California — October 2, 2008 — Amid the clamor of national debate over how best to reduce reliance on oil, the call to replace petroleum with ethanol made enough noise recently to attract government and industry attention. In response, a major U.S. pipeline company, Colonial, began its study of the feasibility of introducing alternative fuels, such as ethanol, to pipeline shipments.

To manage the study, Colonial Pipeline uses geographic information system (GIS) technology. GIS software by ESRI provides a framework for understanding every element of a particular situation based on geographic location and relationships. For example, ethanol production centers are mostly in the Midwest—far from consumers and not in direct reach of many existing pipelines. Colonial uses GIS to find the best opportunities for tying producers to pipelines and terminals and, eventually, retail gas stations.

“The tedious process of shuffling through paper maps and relying on manual interpretation has become an efficient process of spatial analysis when we put all the information into the GIS,” said Chad Zamarin, GIS analyst with Colonial Pipeline. “We run spatial queries to identify which ethanol producers connect to railroads and, in turn, connect to our pipeline and integrate that analysis into our business models to identify the best opportunity.”

Using GIS, pipeline company engineers are able to layer infrastructure data with natural resources and population information. For Colonial, GIS provides an integrated account of the company’s assets and infrastructure. The system tracks the location of pipelines, tanks, equipment, and other components. With the modern geospatial tools found in ESRI’s  ArcGIS software, Colonial can analyze its infrastructure to quickly recognize locations that may not be compatible with ethanol. By building a computer model of proposed plans, Colonial is able to identify risks and analyze the use or modification of its pipeline system for potential ethanol service.

Working with GIS technology, Colonial has been able to build business models for shipping ethanol via pipelines. Within the business model, Colonial can weigh the costs associated with various railroads, the production capacity for each ethanol plant, and the various transit times from producer to pipeline. Colonial engineers map and model possible scenarios of transporting ethanol from producer to train, barge, or truck and pipelines and terminals, then back to trucks. Concurrently, the company can analyze population data within the GIS to determine where the greatest demand for ethanol exists.

As opportunities are emerging, pipeline companies such as Colonial have begun route selection and planning for new pipelines. Routing of new pipelines requires consideration for property owners, water bodies, environmental issues, impact to other utilities, types of vegetation, fault lines, and topography. All this information can be represented as layers in the GIS and used in analysis for decision making.

“In today’s complex regulatory and operational environment, it is impossible to effectively manage a pipeline system without the use of GIS,” said Rob Brook, ESRI’s pipeline and gas industry manager. “With GIS, you can reference and integrate limitless amounts of information and arrive at the type of informed decisions necessary to ensure public safety.”

About ESRI

Since 1969, ESRI has been giving customers around the world the power to think and plan geographically. The market leader in GIS, ESRI software is used in more than 300,000 organizations worldwide including each of the 200 largest cities in the United States, most national governments, more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies, and more than 7,000 colleges and universities. ESRI applications, running on more than one million desktops and thousands of Web and enterprise servers, provide the backbone for the world’s mapping and spatial analysis. ESRI is the only vendor that provides complete technical solutions for desktop, mobile, server, and Internet platforms. Visit us at


Jessica Wyland
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