Transporting Oil by Land

Updated on 09.07.2018
High School

10 min read

Economic, geographical or political reasons can sometimes make transporting oil by land a better option than shipping it by sea. In such cases, oil pipelines are used to link ports, refineries and points of consumption.

Pipelines are large structures that carry tens of millions of metric tons of oil each year. The longest pipeline in the world is the 5,237-kilometer Druzhba pipeline, which runs through eight countries — Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany.

The Pipeline, Land-Based Option

Pipelines can be damaged by corrosion caused by carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide.

enerally speaking, the oil industry prefers to ship oil by sea because this mode of transportation is more flexible. Unlike a pipeline, a ship does not have to take the same route every time, which means it can be adapted to meet demand. However, sometimes oil has to travel over land, for example to landlocked countries.

In this case, it can be easier and less costly to use a pipeline than to transport oil by road or train.

  • In large countries like Russia, pipelines are useful to deliver oil to ports for export by ship.
  • Western Europe has pipeline networks that carry crude from ports to refineries located further inland. These are also used to transport finished products — transportation and feedstock for the petrochemicals industry — from refineries to major consumer regions.

Close Monitoring

5,327 kilometers:
the length of the Druzhba pipeline, the world’s longest

To facilitate the flow of in a pipeline, pumping stations located every 60 to 100 kilometers increase pressure as the oil passes through. Inside a pipeline, oil travels 2 meters per second or 7 kilometers per hour, the same speed as an elephant.

Whether oil is transported by sea or pipeline, the safety and security of operations is key. If a pipeline is damaged accidentally or sabotaged, leaks can be quickly detected because of the sudden drop in pressure recorded. When a leak is confined to a specific point, the oil flow is stopped as soon as possible at the pumping stations to contain any spill.

However, leaks due to pipe can be major. Oil contains acid gases such as carbon dioxide and sulfide, which corrode metal pipes over time. To prevent such accidents, pipelines must be regularly inspected and sections replaced. In regions with harsh climates such as Siberia, oil pipelines experienced significant corrosion. Since these areas are difficult to access, the sections of pipe are not always changed soon enough, resulting in leaks.

Geopolitical Challenges

There are major geopolitical and economic issues involved in building new pipelines, often leading to difficult negotiations or environmental concerns.

A Few Examples:
  • Up until the mid-2000s, Russia controlled 80% of pipelines transporting oil from the Caspian Sea, which has estimated reserves of 17 billion to 33 billion barrels. In May 2005, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline began operating, linking the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and putting an end to this virtual monopoly. States in the region now sell over 1 million barrels per day directly to European countries.
  • Russia, which is highly dependent on energy exports, began using the Siberia-Pacific pipeline in 2010 to supply Asian markets, particularly China, Japan and Korea. A second section of this pipeline will open in 2018 to deliver oil to China. Russia has become China’s most significant oil supplier. 
  • The Keystone XL Pipeline project, which would carry oil from Canada’s to the Gulf of Mexico, has drawn the ire of American environmentalists. In November 2015; the then U.S. President Barack Obama denied permission for its construction but his successor Donald Trump approved the project in March 2017. Pipelines planned in Canada to supply refineries in the eastern part of the country are also controversial, with supporters emphasizing the economic advantages and opponents contesting oil sands development.




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