Eight major oil companies began discussing a Gulf Coast-to-East Coast pipeline in 1956. On June 7, 1961, Sinclair Pipeline Co., Texaco Inc., Gulf Oil Co., American Oil Co., The Pure Oil Co., Phillips Petroleum Co., The Cities Service Co. and Continental Oil Co. filed incorporation papers in Delaware to establish the Suwannee Pipe Line Company "for the purpose of building a 22-inch line from Houston to the Baltimore-Washington area capable of delivering 300,000 barrels of refined products a day." Construction of Colonial Pipeline's original system started in 1961.
During February 1962, the board of the Suwannee Pipe Line Company met to rename the company. It chose Colonial Pipeline Company to represent the fact that the proposed pipeline would traverse several states that were former colonies. Mobil joined the other eight companies in 1962. On March 6, 1962, Colonial Pipeline Company formally announced its plans. A press release stated that the nine companies "launched the largest single, privately financed construction project in the history of the United States." The initial investment by the nine companies was almost $370 million. R.J. Andress was named President of the newly formed company.
It is operated by Colonial Pipeline Company, which is headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia. The company was founded during 1961 and construction of the pipeline began in 1962.
A ceremonial ground-breaking near Atlanta, the pipeline's eventual headquarters, on June 20, 1962, was attended by U.S. Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges and company, city and state officials. On July 2, 1962, Colonial Pipeline Company solicited bids from contractors to build 15 segments of the pipeline's mainline. Each segment averaged 100 miles and 200-300 workers. Work progressed at roughly one mile per day for each of the segments. The first lengths of pipe were delivered by rail, barge, and on specially constructed trailers to handle 80-foot double joints on the road. Construction started on August 1, 1962, in Mississippi.
In December 1962, Ben "Tex" Leuty was named president of Colonial Pipeline Company. He had earlier served as vice president and general manager overseeing construction of the pipeline.
The enormous scale of the Colonial Pipeline Project attracted considerable media attention. Fortune Magazine featured the project as its cover story in February 1963. Colonial was featured in an August 1964 edition of TIME Magazine in an article titled, "The Invisible Network: A Revolution Underground." An article in a late 1965 edition of Pipeline Magazine included: "Colonial Pipeline will perhaps do more to change America's transportation and marketing operations in the East and South than any single undertaking in which our country has participated in recent years."
The first "linefill" of Colonial began the morning of September 16, 1963 in Houston. It was shut down that day, because of forecasts of a developing major storm. Two days later Hurricane Cindy (1963) struck the Gulf Coast. Product reached Greensboro, North Carolina for the first time in November 1963. During the next several months, product was delivered to markets farther north in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
An expansion project totaling $670 million neared completion. The Colonial Pipeline system capacity was 83 percent more than when the system first opened in 1964.
On April 27, 1964, the first batch of refined product was delivered to the Roanoke, Virginia area. On June 2, 1964, Colonial made its first delivery to the Baltimore, Maryland – Washington, D.C. area. On December 1, 1964 mainline construction of the Colonial Pipeline was completed, and the Linden Junction Tank Farm and Delivery Facility in New Jersey was activated. The Colonial Pipeline system was fully operational on December 18, 1964.
The Colonial system averaged a throughput of 636,553 barrels of refined product a day in 1965, its first full year of operation.
Fred Steingraber was elected president of Colonial Pipeline Company on July 26, 1965, taking control in October.
By February 1966, Colonial was averaging a daily throughput of 776,883 barrels of refined product each day, surpassing the 600,000 barrel per day estimated when construction began just a few years before. During May 1966, Colonial began phase one of an expansion project to add 18 intermediate booster stations to add horsepower to the system. This resulted in increasing product flow through the mainline between Selma, North Carolina and Greensboro, North Carolina. The Colonial pipeline board of directors approved phase 2 and 3 of its early expansion projects to increase capacity on its mainline to 1 million barrels per day.
Phase two of the expansion was completed in November 1967, adding additional pump units and a new stubline from Mitchell, Virginia to Roanoke, Virginia.
"Looping", or adding a second line parallel to the first, began in 1971. This construction continued through 1980, essentially doubling the capacity of the pipeline system. The second line was staffed by 593 employees.
On November 3, 1978, the new 40-inch line from Atlanta, Georgia to Greensboro, North Carolina began service. Colonial became the first company to equip gasoline storage tanks with geodesic domes. Colonial updated its Atlanta control center with a new generation of its computerized SCADA system.
Colonial's annual throughput attained 635.6 million barrels. During September 1988, Colonial replaced 7,700 feet of mainline pipe across the Delaware River at a cost of $10 million.
On March 26, 1997, Colonial Pipeline Company was one of ten companies recognized for quality service by the Department of Defense, Military Traffic Management Command. Colonial president and CEO Donald Brinkley retires, David Lemmon named president and CEO.
As a precautionary measure, on December 31, 1999, Colonial Pipeline shut down operations for a few hours before and after midnight to prevent any Y2K-related power outages.
As a result of seven different spills on Colonial Pipeline in four years in the 1990s, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed a complaint in 2000 against Colonial for violations of the Clean Water Act. It alleged gross negligence specifically in three cases noted above: 1996 Reedy River, 1997 Bear Creek, and 1999 Goose Creek/Tennessee River. The parties reached a settlement with Colonial Pipeline that was announced on April 1, 2003. Colonial was required to pay a civil penalty of $34 million, the "largest a company has paid in EPA history." "Under the consent decree, Colonial will upgrade environmental protection on the pipeline at an estimated cost of at least $30 million."
During September 2001, Colonial Pipeline Company relocated its headquarters from Atlanta to suburban Alpharetta, Georgia. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Colonial increased security at each of its facilities and created a comprehensive security plan. This was later recognized by the Federal Government as a model for the pipeline industry. Colonial Pipeline marked a record year with an annual throughput of 2.3 million barrels per day.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina knocked out power in large parts of Mississippi and Louisiana, forcing Colonial to operate at reduced flow rates. The company rented portable generators to help restore partial service as utilities recovered and restored normal service. When Hurricane Rita hit a month later, Colonial used these generators to help load product stranded in refinery storage tanks that did not have power. By the time hurricanes Gustav and Ike struck in 2008, Colonial owned and operated this set of emergency generators. It purchased a new set of generators in 2012 and stationed them in Mississippi, inland and out of the direct path of most storms.
After the passage of Hurricane Ike in September 2008, this pipeline was operating at a severely reduced capacity due to a lack of supply from refineries in the Gulf Coast that had closed, causing gasoline shortages across the southeastern United States.
On May 7, 2021, Colonial was the subject of a malware cyberattack that resulted in a shutdown of their operations. Approximately 12,000 gas stations were affected directly by the shutdown. Operations were restored on May 13, 2021.