The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released its annual data series tracking how crude oil reaches the refinery gate. Not surprisingly, the 2012 data show heightened reliance on crude receipts via barge, truck and rail.
There has been much discussion about the rise in U.S. crude oil production and the resulting overhang in inventories at Cushing, Oklahoma and elsewhere in the midcontinent because of pipeline infrastructure that has not kept pace with burgeoning domestic crude oil supply. The supply-pipeline mismatch is encouraging market participants to increasingly rely on alternative transportation options.
From 2005 to 2010, 96 percent of refinery crude oil receipts came by pipeline and tanker (ship). With relatively low costs and high capacity, pipelines have long been the delivery method of choice for inland refineries. Coastal refineries, on the other hand, have typically been served by tankers of waterborne imports or offshore production. In 2011, this usage began to decline, and in 2012, pipelines and tankers delivered 93 percent of crude oil processed by U.S. refiners (Figure 1). The balance is made up primarily of domestic crude supplies carried via barge, rail and truck. Foreign receipts via barge have declined slightly.
Because truck and rail are less cost-effective options for moving crude, they typically have accounted for a very small portion of refinery crude receipts, averaging just 1 percent of total receipts from 2000 to 2010. Starting in 2011, this truck and rail volume increased, and in 2012 it represented 3 percent of refinery receipts. Additionally, domestic barge receipts also increased, and now account for close to 3 percent (Figure 2). Expanding existing pipelines or building entirely new ones is costly and requires lengthy regulatory review. Using trucks and trains on the other hand, provides greater flexibility and uses existing infrastructure. As long as the Bakken and WTI prices trade at a large enough discount to global, waterborne crudes, these transportation patterns are likely to persist or even expand.
EIA collects data on crude delivery methods annually from all U.S. refineries. In cases where multiple transportation modes are used, respondents report the mode used for the last 100 miles. If several modes are used, and none is more than 100 miles, the method representing the longest distance is recorded. This may partially explain the increase in domestic barge traffic, with crude oil loaded on rail cars at production areas and then transferred to barges for the final leg of some journeys to refineries, particularly on the East Coast and along the Mississippi River. With increased rail traffic reported by the Association of American Railroads for the first half of 2013, it is likely that the EIA data on domestic crude receipts by rail will be higher in EIA's 2013 survey.