Crude Oil Transportation – Pipes, Rail, Trucks and Ships

Crude Oil Transportation

Crude Oil Transportation

Petroleum products power our cars, heat our homes, light our buildings and move a myriad of consumer goods around the country. The methods by which petroleum products – specifically oil – travels is a fascinating, interconnected web of pipelines, rail lines, shipping lines and trucking routes. Crude oil transportation is big business, and in this article we will explore the process by which it finds its way from remote areas of extraction and refinement to the end consumer. From well pad to refinery and refinery to gas station, oil is on the move across the country and the world.  With the ever-fluctuating market, sophisticated storage facilities have been put in place to assist with the balancing of supply and demand for both refined products and crude.

Oil Transport Methods

According to an article by James Conca in Forbes Magazine, “In the US, 70% of crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline, 23% of oil shipments are on tankers and barges over water, trucking only accounts for 4% of shipments, and rail for a mere 3%.” This highly integrated network of oil transport transmits and distributes petroleum products across the United States and the world. A basic breakdown of these distribution channels are:

Pipelines – Zigzagging across the country just below the surface is a lattice of pipelines that forward crude oil transportation from oil wells to processing facilities, collection tanks, terminal storage facilities, refineries and then finally, finished terminal storage facilities. Along the way there are booster pumping stations to keep the crude moving at a predetermined pressure for safety and environmental concerns. Known to carry a lower carbon footprint than rail, shipping or trucking, the development of pipelines is however, a controversial topic, drawing significant concern from the public for their potential environmental impact. According to, “The United States has the largest network of energy pipelines in the world, with more than 2.4 million miles of pipe… (and) there are approximately 72,000 miles of crude oil lines in the U.S. that connect (to) regional markets.” Pipelines are separated into two general types – natural gas pipelines and liquid petroleum pipelines. Crude oil lines are considered either “gathering” or “transmission,” and the liquid petroleum category can be broken down into lines carrying crude, refined products, highly volatile liquids (HVL) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Rail – For long distance crude oil transportation and refined products, rail is a rapidly growing industry. A rail tank car can accommodate roughly 30,000 gallons of crude, and with 100 cars, that’s a significant volume of oil. Transporting via rail generally carries a lower shipping cost than the other three methods, but with it’s hefty carbon footprint, minimal speed and reputation for accidents that have resulted in both the loss of life and the spilling of millions of gallons of oil, it is not a perfect mode of transport. According to a piece by Curtis Tate in McClatchy DC Bureau, “More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents (in 2014) than was spilled in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on such spills. Including major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013. By comparison, from 1975 to 2012, U.S. railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. The spike underscores new concerns about the safety of such shipments as rail has become the preferred mode for oil producers amid a North American energy boom.”

Trucking – From an accident standpoint and the simple fact that crude oil transportation via truck limits the amount of product that can be shipped, trucking as an oil transport method is easily accessible, but not highly efficient. With only 4% of our crude and refined product needs being met with trucks, it is far more efficient as a means of moving finished products or crude across short distances. To match the carrying capacity of pipelines and rail, an immense army of tankers would be required, and the unpredictability of the open road makes for somewhat dangerous transit. But despite the potential for spills while transporting oil via truck, it ranks as the least impactful option environmentally because loads are relatively small, on land and less likely to be detrimental to a body of water. According to, “Trucks are often the last step in the transport process, delivering oil and refined petroleum products to their intended storage destinations.” Being less efficient than other methods based on volume and capacity, the advantage of trucks is the ease with which they can maneuver from point A to B.  

Shipping – Oversea transport delivers crude oil to the United States from many countries around the world, crossing oceans, skimming coastal waters and traversing riverways. Shipping is responsible for nearly all foreign oil imports and being second only to pipelines in volume and cost, a 30,000-barrel tank barge can accommodate more oil than 45 rail cars and at a fraction of the cost. They’re slow going compared to the other three transport methods and from an environmental impact standpoint, shipping has the potential to be the most detrimental. With inconsistent technology to determine water depth and obstacles, compounded by good old fashioned human error, the shipping industry has been responsible for some truly devastating spills.

The Future of Crude Oil Transportation

With the above methods for transporting oil and refined products, the infrastructure and integrated systems generally evolve based on cost, energy exploration and the location of refineries and markets. Each method has its own unique benefits and drawbacks, but combined, pipelines, rail, trucking and shipping modalities move the crude and refined products that we rely on. When land routes are unavailable, we have the option of sea transport. When product needs to be moved in significant volume across vast stretches of country, rail and pipeline deliver. For short-runs from point A to B, the freedom and maneuverability of trucking can’t be overstated. With ever-evolving technology largely driven by increased environmental regulations, the oil transport industry continues to focus on new ways to reduce emissions, enhance efficiency and maximize the safety of workers and the environment by preventing unnecessary and costly spills.

Contact an SCL Consultant today

In a wide range of industrial sectors, if there’s metal touching metal, oil is involved. At SCL, we’re here to protect and optimize the machines that keep our country moving and we pride ourselves on providing superior logistics and solutions, extensive product and industry knowledge and total performance satisfaction for our customers. For information on how we can assist your fleet in choosing the optimal products at a competitive price, contact an SCL consultant today.


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