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Trends in Heavy Oil Transportation

by Franklin L. Foster, Ph.D.

Once oil was found and produced at the well site, the next challenge was to transport it to a refinery and then on to the end users. Although the very early strikes such as the Dina Field of the 1930’s tried refining at the well site, this was clearly impractical for large volumes.

uptanks.jpg (24892 bytes)
Oil Storage Tanks
on raised platform of wooden beams
Trucks drove underneath and gravity helped drain oil into the truck tank

By the 1940’s, field storage tanks, visited periodically by tanker trucks, had become the norm - a norm that still is common in the patch.

The trucks of the 1940’s and 50’s had a capacity of 40 to 50 barrels. Since you couldn’t buy a tanker truck at the local dealer, tanks were fabricated locally and bolted to truck frames. One of the local firms which did this was Hoskins and Gallagher, which custom built hauling tanks of up to 80 barrels capacity.

The real movement of heavy crude began with the construction of the Husky Refinery in 1946 and the earlier Excelsior Refinery supplied another market. Truck loads from the field would arrive at the refineries and drive over a truck pit. This had an opening approximately 2 feet wide by 3 feet long. A valve on the bottom of the truck tank would be opened and the load of crude would drain into the pit. From there it would be pumped either to the refinery or loaded on railroad tank cars for transport to more distant refineries. Over 1 million barrels of crude oil were shipped via the railroad to Edmonton before the Lloydminster to Hardisty pipeline was constructed.

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Loading an Oil Truck
A common scene in our oil patch
This picture from the late 1940's shows on the ground
(left to right) Lloyd Clinch and Professor Harry Edmunds)
As the fields spread and truck traffic increased, it put added pressure on local roads. Oil has to be hauled year round and sometimes the country roads took quite a beating. On the other hand, the existence of oil wells meant the construction or upgrading of roads well before they might otherwise have been done. Thus many rural areas received a road network constructed by oil companies. Many of the early roads in the Blackfoot area, for example, were built by Husky Oil. As well, many farmers appreciate the snow plowing to keep lease roads open. In the days when municipal snow plows were few and far between, farm families could be stranded behind drift clogged roads for weeks in a bad winter. An oil lease road nearby often ended this problem for a farm family, including the writer’s own family.

Many local companies got their start transporting oil. It was a relatively easy way, in the early days, to get involved in the oil industry. Over the years, trucks became larger, stronger, and could carry more capacity - up to 220 barrels. The business side of the oil hauling business also became more complex. Well owners often tendered hauling contracts and received bids, usually at so much per barrel. While cost calculation formulas have become more complex, the basic concept of a rate per barrels hauled remains. Today, strategic alliances between companies attempt to introduce a higher degree of risk management for both haulers and producers.

The trucking business has become more complex in other ways. In the early days there was little attention to safety issues and no driver training programs. It was thought any farm boy who could drive a tractor could operate an oil truck. Now-a-days, drivers must be specially licensed, earn certificates in H2S and WHMIS as well as company safety programs. Some companies employ full time driver trainers and conduct random drug testing of drivers.

Trucking heavy oil can present its own special problems. The already low viscosity is made worse in winter conditions. As well, Lloydminster area crude often has a high water cut, say 30%. This water settles to the bottom of storage tanks and truck tanks where it can freeze, blocking drainage valves. It was tempting in the early days to carry a propane torch to melt frozen junctions, despite the fact that open flames around petroleum products are a dangerous mix.

There comes a time when the volumes produced may mean cost savings by transporting via pipeline rather than by trucks. There are some fields where pipelines are employed to move well production to a central location in the field - called a battery. The battery may provide some treatment facilities such as a water knockout unit. From the battery the oil may be trucked or pipelined to refineries locally or across the continent.

Pipeline Construction - 1947 
Pipeline under construction near Blackfoot, Alberta - 1947 

An early pipeline ran from Lloydminster to a terminal at Hardisty where it could be transferred to the Interprovincial Pipeline Company pipeline to Sarnia or other points. At first it was not known how heavy crude could be piped. There was a danger of it clogging the pipeline and refusing to move. Purely as an experiment, it was decided to try diluting the crude to increase its API (from 14 to 20 or higher). The diluent used was condensate, the wet portion of natural gas. Even then it was not known if the mixture would settle out along the way, again ending in a glob of heavy oil blocking the pipeline. Fortunately none of the fears materialized and condensate as a thinner remains a standard way of pipelining heavy oil. When the mixture reaches the refinery, the condensate is stripped off and used as feedstock for the manufacture of plastics and styrenes.

Another technique, used in the ECHO pipeline from Elk Point to Hardisty is to insulate the pipeline and bury it at lest six feet below the surface. This allows the oil to retain a higher temperature and thus flow more easily through the line.

Pipelines have pumping stations about every 80 to 100 kilometers along their length where pressure is maintained. Sophisticated monitoring devices can track flow rates and detect any difficulties, including leaks. Should a leak be detected, the line pressure can be immediately reduced and a visual inspection of the suspected line section be conducted, by chartered airplane if necessary. Computerized monitoring devices are allowing increasing field collection via pipelines as for example from the Provost field to Hardisty.

To ease pressure on high volume pipelines, a loop can be constructed. This is a parallel pipeline running along side the main pipeline. The 10 inch Lloydminster to Hardisty pipeline for example is looped in places by a 6 inch companion line. This looping reduces pressure in the original line by up to 50%.

Terminals play an important role in oil transportation. These facilities allow for the collection of oil and its introduction into long distance pipelines. Terminals can receive shipments via truck or rail. In such cases, high volume storage is usually used as well. Batches of 80,000 barrels each are assembled before they are introduced into the long distance pipelines. Terminals can also receive shipments from feeder pipelines. Here again storage can be important and some terminal operators provide leased storage in tank farms where amounts of over 1 million barrels crude can be stockpiled, either for later shipment or as a hedge against price fluctuations

Like the rest of the heavy oil industry, oil transportation has become a complex, highly technical operation. Computerization is likely to play an increasingly important role but highly trained , professional personnel will always be essential to the safe, efficient and economic transportation of heavy oil and its derivatives.