What do you do when you’ve struck huge amounts of oil but there’s no pipeline around for miles? After doing a happy dance you need to figure out how to transport this black gold to a refinery hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles away. If you had made this sort of discovery fifty years ago there wasn’t a lot you could do about it, but these days it is possible to extract crude oil from a shale deposit out in the middle of nowhere and transport it through several steps to a refinery.
In the quest for fuel sources in the United States, there are several important oil plays that have been discovered and are producing large quantities of crude oil. But there’s one in particular, the Bakken oil play, that’s located in parts of North Dakota, Montana and the Canadian territories of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada. The Bakken was originally discovered in 1951 but not until recently did technology progress enough to extract any of the crude. High oil prices coupled with an evolution of drilling technology, namely horizontal drilling, and the use of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) have enabled independent oil companies to increase the Bakken’s production. It is no longer necessary to drill 20 wells when two or three will get the same or better recovery. Horizontal drilling makes all the difference. It is still more expensive than vertical drilling, but greater productivity makes it the new preferred method of extraction.
While pipelines are the most efficient method for transporting crude oil, up north there is no pipeline to connect to so other means of transport must take place. The extracted crude is stored in floating roof tanks until tanker trucks draw the oil from storage and take it to a terminal near a railway station. There, approximately 120 connected rail cars will be on a rail spur waiting to be filled with oil from the trucks. This process is called transloading, pulling from one vehicle to place into another.
Once loaded the rail cars are ready for their trip south to the pipeline. When the cars are close to the refinery location a reverse transloading process takes place – moving the oil from rail car to truck to refinery. While this may be more expensive than being able to connect directly to the main pipeline the Bakken produces enough crude at this point in time to make the transportation process and added cost worthwhile.