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Getting Around: How does all that gasoline and other fuel get here?

Sunday, January 04, 2004

By Joe Grata, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Gasoline, diesel and jet fuel guzzled by cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains and boats has become as important to us as water.

Other than knowing how to twist off the fuel cap, operate the self-serve pumps and complain about oil sheiks and prices, do you know how the energy that powers rubber tires, steel wheels, props and turbines gets to us?

"Getting Around" hopes to enlighten you.

I know you know that Exxon, CoGo's, BP, Gulf, Sunoco, Texaco, A-Plus, 7-Eleven, Mobil, Citgo and every other brand of gasoline sold in the Pittsburgh region travels thousands of miles to get here.

But did you know all brands are basically generic as they flow from refineries through the same pipelines?

Did you know regular unleaded gasoline, premium grade gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, kerosene, propane and other distilled petroleum products also share the same pipelines to Pittsburgh and every other place?

Did you know there's a nationwide network of 114,000 miles of the underground pipes that collects crude oil from oil fields still in production in the U.S. and transport it to refineries for processing?

Did you know there's a related nationwide network of 85,500 miles of pipes, up to 48 inches in diameter, that then distributes the petroleum products from the refineries to communities such as ours for use in manufacturing, home heating and commercial, public and personal vehicles?

I didn't.

Since this is a transportation-related column rooted in gas and oil, I thought I better find out. So I checked out the region's fuel line.

With the help of pumps, two-thirds of our fuel flows to us through a highly sophisticated, well-developed series of pipelines. The rest, along with many specialty petroleum products, comes by barge (28 percent), truck (4 percent) and train (2 percent).

Because we depend mostly on pipelines, I contacted the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Oil Pipe Lines, which represents owners and operators of the lines delivering about 13 billion barrels of petroleum products nationwide each year. (That's 546 billion gallons!)

Officials said the Pittsburgh region was well connected to the network. Separate major supply lines come from the South, Midwest and East, helping explain why we haven't experienced gas shortages and why prices have been equal to or slightly lower than those in many other areas.

The three refinery pipes coming to and/or through Pittsburgh originate in the oil-rich Gulf Coast, the Midwest and the Baltimore-New Jersey area that's supplied by foreign oil. We're in a good spot.

Pittsburgh also is an important destination for petroleum products moved by barge because of its location on the inland waterways and proximity to major markets.

No matter how they arrive, gas and diesel fuel are stored in tanks at regional distribution centers, nearly all of which can be found along Tri-State area rivers.

Neville Island on the Ohio River is our biggest depository of gas and diesel. Petroleum Products Corp., which recently acquired the Exxon terminal, and Gulf Oil are the major players on Neville. Buckeye Pipe Line Co. delivers to both of them. They also sell to other fuel companies.

Big tank trucks deliver the fuel from the terminals to the end of the line -- service stations and local home heating oil depots.

If everything is one big batch coming out of the same pipe, what's the difference in gasoline brands?

"Once the basic product fulfills the requirements that any refinery can meet, the individual companies put in additives specific to their sales," said Michelle Joy, general counsel for the oil pipeline trade group. "The additives can do everything from boost engine performance to clean the engine with a special detergent."

Amoco is the only gas segregated from other brands, she said. "It's a clear gas, an exclusive environmental product not made by anyone else. When we're moving Amoco, we're moving it as a separate batch."

If everything comes out of the same pipe, back-to-back, how do they separate the dozens of products and grades of gasoline making long journeys from refineries to markets?

A briefing paper from the Association of Oil Pipe Lines and American Petroleum Institute explains:

"The physical principles of hydraulics keep batches of liquid from blending and contaminating one another except where they actually touch. The 'interfaces' from the different shipments are separated out when they arrive at destinations and are re-processed.

"Sometimes batches are separated by metal 'pigs' or plugs that keep batches from touching. Pigs are also used for cleaning interior surfaces of pipelines to help prevent corrosion. Specially developed 'smart pigs' containing instrumentation packages are used to double check pipeline integrity."

Since 9/11, the pipeline industry has adopted new security measures to protect the nation's fuel supply lines, including a trunk line along the East Coast holding and moving one-fourth of the U.S. daily consumption at a time.

Pittsburgh International Airport receives jet fuel through underground pipelines. You'll have to take my word for it. I'm not going to say how many or where.

Courtesy of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, I also thought you'd like to know:

Less than one teaspoon is lost for every barrel (42 gallons) of petroleum product moved every 1,000 miles through the underground pipeline network.

The "shipping cost" for moving a gallon of gasoline from a Houston refinery to New York City is 3 cents.

More than 100 Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy installations in the United States have direct connections to the interstate pipeline network.

The U.S. military uses roughly $3.6 billion worth of fuel each year. Jet fuel for the military and commercial airlines passes through several special filtering processes in order to keep it pure.

"All the while that products are moving through the pipelines, computers monitor and test them," Joy said. "We keep records for proof" in case of problems or lawsuits."

I keep a record of my gasoline, too. It's updated every month on my credit card statement.

More oil pipe lines. For additional information and insight, I recommend two Web sites -- and

Plate du jour. While driving back from Myrtle Beach, S.C., Cameron Cline of Weirton, W.Va., was passed by a car bearing the Pennsylvania personalized license plate SLUM UN. It was a new Cadillac DeVille.

Joe Grata can be reached at or 412-263-1985.

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