Moving oil by ship or barge to refineries

Frittelli, J., et al. May 5, 2014. U.S. Rail Transportation of Crude Oil: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.


One river barge can hold 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil. Two to three river barges are typically tied together in a single tow that carries 20,000 to 90,000 barrels, about the same load as a unit train. Coastal tank barges designed for open seas, known as articulated tug-barges, or ATBs, 22 can hold 50,000 to 185,000 barrels, although newer ATBs can carry as much as 340,000 barrels, comparable to the capacity of coastal tankers. ATBs are slower, less fuel-efficient, and more restricted by sea conditions, but nevertheless may have an economic advantage over tankers because Coast Guard crewing regulations allow them to sail with one-third to half the crew required on a tanker. Crude oil tankers used to move Alaska oil to West Coast refineries have capacities of 800,000 to over 1 million barrels.

An advantage of tankers over railroads is the greater amount of oil they can carry in a single voyage, which better matches the daily consumption rate of refineries. With the median capacity for U.S. refineries at about 160,000 barrels per day, a coastal tanker can carry a two-day supply of oil. In addition, while railroads must build and maintain tracks and pay property taxes on their rights-of-way, the ocean is free, and harbor channels are largely provided by the federal government. For these reasons, tankers can be much cheaper than railroads in moving oil, even though the railroad route may be much more direct. For instance, the distance between the Bakken region in North Dakota and refineries in the Northeast is approximately 1,800 miles, and the cost of railroad transport is $14 per barrel. 23 The distance from Texas ports near the Eagle Ford region to the same refineries is about 2,100 miles, and tanker rates are $5 to $6 per barrel. 24 Similarly, the overland distance from the Eagle Ford region to Los Angeles-area refineries is about 1,400 miles, and the estimated cost of railroad transport is $15 per barrel, while the water route through the Panama Canal is 5,200 miles and is estimated to cost $10 per barrel. 25

Although seemingly a circuitous route compared to rail, it is not inconceivable that tankers could play a role in moving Bakken oil to East or West Coast refineries. Significant amounts of Bakken oil are moved to Gulf Coast terminals by pipeline, railroad, barge, or combinations of these modes for refining within that region. From a Gulf Coast port, tankers could transport the oil to either East or West Coast refineries. Via existing rail and pipeline connections to Great Lakes ports, tankers could also move Bakken oil from there to Northeast refineries.

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