This year, the U.S. is expected to produce an average of more than 8.5 million barrels of crude oil per day – just shy of the 9.6 million per day of our historical peak production in 1970. In part this is due to better extraction methods—including recent technological advances that have made it possible to extract oil from sources such as non-permeable shale rock, which had previously not been economically viable sources.
This increase in production, especially from new extraction sites, has created the need for new transportation networks. The result is that it can be hard to get a clear picture of how fuel actually moves across America.
As a general rule, most crude oil extracted from the earth gets moved by every major form of transportation—ship (for offshore sources), pipeline, train and truck—at some point in its journey. To clarify the rationale behind this all-hands-on-deck approach, here’s an overview of the way each land transport method is involved, and why it’s chosen:
Pipelines have historically been the transportation method of choice for the oil industry. They’re relatively inexpensive (once they’re built, there are no additional transportation charges), they’re secure (subject to regular inspections and maintenance), and they can be used to link distant parts of the production network (which extraction sites and refineries increasingly are) relatively quickly.
The existing network is extensive (North America’s pipeline network is the longest and most extensive in the world) and handles the bulk of fuel transport across the country (about 70 percent of crude oil is transported mainly by pipeline), especially from established extraction sites to large refineries. Nevertheless, it still requires more geographically flexible means of transportation like trains and trucks to help make the connections at each end.
The dramatic increase in U.S. crude oil production in recent years, coupled with the steady decline in the number of refineries, has led to a greater need to move crude oil than ever before. This need is intensified by the fact that most operational refineries are located in areas where oil had historically been extracted (Texas and Oklahoma) or along the coast (California and the Gulf Coast), where it is easily transported by tanker ships, while most of the crude oil we now extract comes from deposits in land-locked areas of recent exploration, like North Dakota.
Since new refineries and pipelines are slow to be built (the last entirely new refinery opened in 1976), the result is that land-based transportation is needed to move crude oil from these new extraction sites to the major refineries elsewhere. Trains are increasingly filling this role because of their geographic flexibility, efficiency, and ability to transport large volumes per trip. The rail network in the U.S. is also greater than the current pipeline network.
As the most flexible form of transport available, trucks will always play a crucial role in fuel delivery. No other method of transportation can compare when it comes to getting refined fuel to remote regions, and no other vehicle offers the flexibility that trucks do in terms of changing routes and itineraries. That’s why trucks remain integral connectors—especially at the delivery end, in terms of connecting refineries to fuel retailers.
Though trucks only form about 4 percent of the existing fuel-transport network, and transport relatively small volumes per load (about 9,000 gallons of refined gasoline per truck tank, equivalent to only 200 barrels of crude), they play a crucial role that no other transport method can replace—especially for short-distance connections and hauls.
As our fuel production increases, and with it the need to move greater and greater volumes of fuel, each link in our transport network becomes increasingly important. That’s why we’re committed to ensuring safety and best practices in every aspect of our involvement. When safety comes first, we all win.