Basics of Fuel Transportation
Fuels are convenient for transporting energy because energy is stored in relatively stable chemical bonds
Fuels can be transported in the solid, liquid, or gaseous forms, by pipeline, rail, truck, or ship
Chemical fuels are convenient for transporting energy from one location to another because chemical bonds are relatively stable. That is, energy can be stored in the form of a chemical bond until a small amount of outside energy (like a spark) is applied to break the bond and release a lot of energy.
Fuels can be moved in solid, liquid, and gas form to distribute energy. The most common means of transporting fuels are pipeline, rail, truck, and ship.
Pipelines are the most common, cheapest, and most energy efficient way to transport liquids and gasses over long and short distances. Pipelines transport crude oil from its extraction location to a refinery, where it gets separated into usable components. Natural gas is also transported through pipelines in a gaseous form.
Any chemically stable liquids or gas can be transported through a pipeline. Pipes can be made of steel or plastic, and the liquids are moved through them in a particular direction by pump stations along the line. Natural gas is often compressed into a liquid known as a Natural Gas Liquid (NGL) for transportation, but can also be moved in its gaseous form at high pressures. Pipelines are regulated remotely via control stations and valve stations to control pressure.
Considerations: Pipelines require a large upfront investment and rights-of-way where they can travel. Some considerations for pipelines include the environmental impact of leaks and spills, and their susceptibility to sabotage. This can be reduced by building pipelines underground where they are less susceptible to weather, corrosion, and other possible sources of damage. One drawback to underground pipelines is that it is more difficult to detect leaks.
Pipelines have received pushback from Indigenous rights activists and environmentalists concerned about the location of proposed pipelines, their potential environmental impact, and their status as long-lasting investment in carbon-intensive fossil fuels.
US Liquid Fuel Pipelines
Source. American Petroleum Institute.
Crude oil (orange), natural gas liquid (NGL, green), refined petroleum (purple), and CO2/ethanol (blue).
US Natural Gas Pipelines
Trains are another cost-effective way to transport fuels. Large trains can carry significant amounts of fuel across land, and rail infrastructure in the United States allows access to many locations.
Coal is transported in the United States primarily by train. Coal is heavy, and moving coal around is expensive and costs energy. Because of this, many primary coal consumers (such as coal-fired power plants) are located near coal mines to reduce this cost.
Transportation of crude and refined oil by train increased in 2013 in the United States, when oil production has increased but pipeline development was slow. Rail transport of oil has since been on the decline again. The transport of oil by train requires special tanker cars in order to safely contain the liquid.
Considerations: Accidents and derailments are a consideration for rail transport, especially if the train cars are carrying substances like crude oil, which is toxic and has detrimental effects on the environment. One way to limit the damage caused by derailments and spills is to limit train speeds.
Tanker trucks are also used to transport fuels, more often liquid and gas fuels than solid coal. Trucks are the most expensive and least energy efficient way to transport fuels, since each truck can only carry a limited amount of fuel. Because of this, they are often used only in the final steps of transportation of refined oil products, or to access remote locations. Tanker trucks, for example, frequently distribute gasoline to gas stations and oil trucks deliver fuel oil to homes.
Water vessels, including ships and barges, are the second cheapest option for transporting fuels after pipelines. This method is especially attractive for international transportation and transportation along waterways.
Drawbacks to using ships for fuel transportation include their slow speeds and environmental impacts. One ship carries a large amount of fuel, up to about 100 million gallons of crude oil, for example. When a ship explodes or sinks, however, it can release tons of crude oil and have devastating effects on marine ecosystems. 7 out of the 14 largest oil spills in history were from tanker ships.
Liquified Natural Gas Supertanker
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Questions for deeper thinking
What are some of the justice (environmental/social/etc.) implications in the development of pipelines? How do pipeline leaks and spills fit into this picture?
What are the implications of the financial and environmental costs of different fuel transportation methods for alternative energy transitions?
What modes of fuel transport do you think will be most useful for different types of renewable fuels (ex. hydrogen, biofuels)?
Sources and further reading
Page last updated: August 31, 2022