No crude (unrefined) oil is shipped by major "trunk" pipelines through Virginia, but crude is transported by rail to a terminal at Yorktown. About 1,000 miles of trunk pipeline ships refined liquids (gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel...) to customers in Virginia, and northeast to a terminal in Linden, New Jersey to supply the New York City area. The refined petroleum products move through the pipeline at 3-8 miles per hour, so oil could be pumped from below the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, processed in a refinery, and sold in Virginia within a month of extraction.1
The Plantation Pipeline was constructed by affiliates of Shell, Texaco, Chevron, and Exxon during World War II to avoid German U-boats that were sinking tankers carrying petroleum via the Atlantic Ocean.. The pipeline carried distillates from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Greensboro, NC, originally. The pipeline was extended into Virginia in 1964, with an extension to Richmond after 1973.2
Plantation Pipeline now ends at the Newington fuel distribution terminal in Northern Virginia, which can store 853,000 barrels of petroleum in 15 different tanks. At the terminal, various additives and ethanol can be blended into gasoline, before it is trucked to gas stations and sold under different brand names. Jet fuel is transported directly through underground pipelines from Newington to Reagan National and Dulles International Airports.3
In the 1960's, other oil companies combined to build an alternative pipeline to distribute petroleum products from their refineries along the Gulf Coast. Today, the Colonial Pipeline has two main trunklines crossing Virginia from the Tennessee border to the Potomac River, and going further north to a terminal in Linden, New Jersey. Distribution companies draw from the storage tanks at that terminal to service customers in the New York area. One main trunkline carries different 38 different grades of gasoline, while the other trunk pipeline carries 7 grades of kerosene and 16 grades of home heating oil and diesel fuel ("distillates" other than gasoline).4
The Colonial Pipeline services the Craney Island Fuel Terminal, the largest fuel storage facility in the United States for the US Navy. Craney Island can receive refined oil products via tanker and barge deliveries, in addition to the pipeline. The US Navy's Yorktown Fuel Terminal also has the capability to be supplied via tanker, but that facility relies mostly upon Colonial Pipeline deliveries. (The military terminal redistributes petroleum products, primarily jet fuel, to military bases via barge and truck deliveries.) A 2011 extension of the Colonial Pipeline connection to the Yorktown Fuel Terminal now provides service to the storage and distribution hub at the site of the former Yorktown refinery.5
Colonial does not ship biodiesel in its pipelines through Virginia, even though a test in 2007 showed biodiesel transport from Texas to New York by pipeline cost $0.03/barrel vs. $0.15 to ship by truck. Biodiesel's Fatty Acid Methyl Esters (FAME) could adhere to pipeline walls as the biodiesel is transported, then contaminate a later batch of jet fuel that is pumped through the same pipeline. Airlines are unwilling to use jet fuel with FAME contamination, since jet engine performance could be affected.6
In addition, hydrocarbon molecules are hydrophobic but biodiesel molecules are hydrophilic, so more water could be dissolved in biodiesel and increase corrosion/dirt in pipelines. However, in 2011 Colonial agreed to ship biodiesel through a pipeline in Georgia that does not transport jet fuel.7
When refined petroleum products are shipped in the trunk pipelines, batches of different products (such as regular vs. premium gasoline, or home heating oil vs. ultra low sulfur diesel) mix at the edge of each shipment. Products are normally transported without a physical separator, so some mixing will occur at the boundary in the pipe. A shipment of jet fuel in the pipeline will stay pure in the middle, but at either end of the batch the jet fuel will mix with whatever other product is being shipped. The blended product may be sold at the value of the lowest-quality component, or "transmix" of incompatible material may be pumped into a separate storage tank and reprocessed:8
Another factor to consider when shipping batches of product is storage capacity at the terminal. Each refined product must be stored in dedicated tanks. Cleaning a tank to store a different product, a necessary step to ensure purity and minimize contamination, is expensive. Storage capacity for kerosene, gasoline, and other products is evaluated by customers before determining what will ordered from the pipeline:9
Pipeline accidents can affect both human safety and the environment. Colonial Pipeline operators in Atlanta responded incorrectly in March, 1980 when a pump station in Conowingo, Maryland shut down. The oil had been moving at 5 miles/hour, carrying 18,000 gallons/minute through Virginia, but the shutdown caused oil to back up and pressure to increase in the 32-inch pipeline south into Virginia. Instead of triggering an orderly shutdown of pumping stations, operators tried to keep the pipeline in business by diverting some of that oil into the 22-inch branch pipeline going to the tank farm on Pickett Road in the City of Fairfax. Within two minutes, the main pipe burst at Manassas (releasing 200,000 gallons of aviation-grade kerosene) and further south near Route 645 in Orange County (where a batch of Number 2 home heating oil leaked into Mine Run, a tributary of the Rapidan River).10
The break in the Colonial Pipeline near Manassas caused kerosene to flow from the intersection of Route 234/Sudley Road to Bull Run and ultimately into the Occoquan Reservoir - the water supply for southern Fairfax County and eastern Prince William County. The Bull Run Marina was used as the primary staging area for the cleanup. Eleven Fairfax County firefighters suffered chemical burns after they placed flotation collars in Bull Run to intercept the kerosene, but the Fairfax County Water Authority plant on the Occoquan Reservoir was able to stay operational.11
It took 24 hours to discover the Rapidan River pipeline break, which released 60,000 gallons and caused a 31-mile oil slick down to the Fredericksburg water intake. The City of Fredericksburg had to shut down its drinking water plant, and Governor Dalton declared a state of emergency. The city closed schools briefly, then banned students from taking showers at school when the system re-opened. The water crisis in Fredericksburg lasted 13 days, and at one point the city used a convoy of tanker trucks to carry uncontaminated water from a quarry until the oil was no longer a problem at the Rappahannock River intake.12
The 1980 oil spill caused Fredericksburg to build a system to isolate its water supply from the Rappahannock River. A 7,000-foot long pipeline in the Rappahannock Canal, plus gates at the junction of the canal and Rappahannock River, was expected to protect 10 days of water supply from future incidents that polluted the river. The $1.5 million project failed - dye traces showed continued leaks from the river into the canal.13
Another spill in December 1989, this time of over 200,000 gallons of kerosene into the Rapidan River, again forced closure of the water system in Fredericksburg after the containment boom dam failed on New Year's Eve. The cracked pipe was apparently part of a shipment that had been loaded incorrectly on railroad cars when the Colonial Pipeline was first built in 1962-64, so hairline cracks developed and later caused pipe failures. The 1989 spill, and continued frustration with Federal and state oversight of petroleum pipeline construction and operations, helped spur Fredericksburg to build a reservoir on Motts Run as the city's new water source.14
In 1993, a break in the Colonial Pipeline in Fairfax County released 400,000 gallons of diesel oil into Sugarland Run. Fairfax County had to close its drinking water intake on the Potomac River for 11 days, while the oil was skimmed off for removal or washed downstream. Federal agencies completed a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, and required Colonial Pipeline to pay for restoration and enhancement of wildlife habitat along the Potomac River. Part of the mitigation effort included constructing a fish passage through Little Falls Dam and building a raised wetland boardwalk and interpretive signage at Dyke Marsh, downstream.15
Tanks farms at the end of pipelines can also be the site of oil spills. The Motiva tank farm on Pickett Road in the City of Fairfax handles 40% of gasoline in the Northern Virginia area. In 1980, 300,000 gallons of gasoline spilled on the surface there, when a pipeline shipment was directed to a small rather than a large tank. The spill forced evacuation of the Comstock subdivision south of the tank farm.16
In 1990, rainstorms brought to the surface some petroleum that had accumulated underground leak from leaking pipes and small overfills of trucks at the tank farm since it was built in 1965. The contaminated groundwater and fumes/oil sheens at the surface caused property values in the nearby Mantua subdivision to nosedive. Star Enterprises (half-owned by Texaco) purchased numerous homes in the neighborhood (it owned 120 houses in 1998, and still owned 31 houses in 2007), and offered financial incentives to homeowners and the community for decades. The strategy worked - Mantua has stayed a high-value neighborhood while the groundwater has been pumped to the surface and the contaminants removed.17
Pipelines are cost-effective for shipping large quantities of refined petroleum products to a few destinations, but not to end customers such as gas stations. Except for airports that receive jet fuel directly, most gasoline and distillates such as heating oil finish their journey in a truck.
Pipelines carry refined petroleum to a blending terminal, such as the Motiva terminal on Pickett Road in Fairfax County After additives are blended with the pipeline product to create different brands of gasoline, tanker trucks transport the finished gasoline from the blending terminal to a gasoline station. Trucks also carry heating oil directly to individual customers.
In contrast, most natural gas is delivered via pipeline all the way to the customer's house or business. There are some exceptions - Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) can be shipped in railroad tanker cars and trucks, and compressed propane gas is transported via truck to refill tanks at houses/businesses that are not connected directly to pipelines. In addition, customers with backyard grills handle the last leg of some propane transport, by exchanging propane tanks at hardware and other stores to get refills.
The small quantities of oil that condense at natural gas wells in the Appalachian Plateau rarely justify construction of a pipeline:18
Transport of large quantities oil via railroad is economically viable in areas where pipeline capacity has been reached, or where pipelines do not exist. Railroads now create 80-100 car unit trains to transport low-sulfur Bakken crude oil from North Dakota, or high-sulfur crude oil from western Canada, to refineries near New York City. A single tanker car can carry 30-32,000 gallons of "light" crude oil from North Dakota without exceeding the weight limit of 286,000 pounds/car, but only 25,000 gallons of "heavy" crude oil with a different molecular composition.19
Two unit trains/day are equivalent to a 150,000 barrel/day pipeline. The tanker cars are sent back empty for another load of oil. Railroads could clean each tanker car and transport refined products back west, earning a profit from shipping material in both directions, but the cost of cleaning would exceed the profit.20
Virginia's crude oil production locations in 2006 included sites where liquids captured at wells drilled primarily for coal bed methane/natural gas
Source: Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy - Oil
tanker cars in Virginia carry refined petroleum products, but in other states railroads are successfully competing with pipelines to transport crude oil from new fields to refineries
Source: US Department of Transportation, DOT outlines options for enhancing tank car standards
The storage and distribution hub at Yorktown, at the site of the former refinery, will have the capacity to receive two unit trains/day. By carrying 80-100 tanker cars in each unit train (essentially a "rail pipeline"), the CSX Railroad can deliver 130,000 barrels per day of petroleum products to the Yorktown site. Up to six million gallons of oil can be stored in various tanks there.21
Though the refinery at Yorktown has closed, there are still crude oil shipments delivered by rail and ship to that destination. CSX can also transport tanker cars loaded with refined petroleum products such as diesel and gasoline, plus ethanol and biodiesel produced from renewable sources, to Yorktown. From the large storage tanks at that terminal, tankers/barges can carry crude oil and other products to refineries near Philadelphia/New York.
CSX oil trains carry crude oil from west-to-east through the middle of Virginia to Yorktown, while tanker cars on the north-to-south route (parallel to the I-95 corridor) carry refined petroleum products
Source: CSX, Crude Oil Network Map
The distinction between ethanol vs. crude vs. refined petroleum products is often confusing to people who live near train tracks. In a 2013 train accident in Quebec, tanker cars carrying crude oil from North Dakota exploded and over 40 people died. Afterwards, CSX reassured residents in Washington DC that in 2013 only three tank cars loaded with crude were transported by the 7,000 trains that traveled on the CSX rail line going through the city (and, across the Potomac River, through Alexandria) - but news stories did not address the number of rail cars loaded with ethanol or refined petroleum products.22
An April, 2014 train accident in Lynchburg resulted in dramatic pictures of tanker cars burning along the city's downtown waterfront. The crude oil in those cars had come from the Bakken formation in North Dakota. That oil production region lacked pipelines and relied upon rail transport to deliver crude to refineries in the Northeast. (The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would divert a portion of the oil south towards Gulf Coast refineries.)23
because there in insufficient pipeline capacity to transport oil from the North Dakota Bakken formation to refineries in the Northeast, CSX trains carry crude oil on tracks that parallel the James River to storage facilities at Yorktown
Source: Virgina Department of Emergency Management, First Bakken Crude Oil Shipment Notification Response Package (prepared by CSX)
Biodiesel and ethanol for blending can also be shipped via barge/truck to customers, bypassing the constraints of transporting biofuels in pipelines. There are no ethanol pipelines in Virginia. Ethanol is transported in bulk by rail and truck rather than by pipeline, because the alcohol-based ethanol absorbs water that can rust pipeline equipment. For the same reason, pipelines do not ship finished gasoline, because it contains ethanol.
Most ethanol is distilled from corn in the middle of the United States, but primary markets are urban areas with Clean Air Act compliance challenges. At rail yards, tanker cars unload ethanol into trucks, which carry it to tank farms with blending terminals. There, ethanol is added to create E-10, E-15, and E-85 mixes, while other additives are blended in to create the specific gasoline formulations sold by brand name retailers such as Exxon, Shell, etc. "Finished" gasoline with specific brand names is then carried by tanker trucks to local gas stations, completing the supply chain.
Why isn't ethanol transported by truck from the Midwest ethanol refineries to Virginia? Transport by rail in 30,000-gallon tank cars costs far less than shipping via 9,000-gallon trucks, each of which requires its own driver - compared to two railroad workers driving a train that can haul 100 tanker cars. As the US Department of Transportation has calculated:23
Pipeline transport of ethanol would be cheaper than rail transport, but that would require a pipeline dedicated to just ethanol. Crude oil and/or refined petroleum products with different chemical compositions can be shipped in batches via pipeline, but pipeline companies avoid transporting E-10 and E-15 gasoline to minimize the corrosive effects of ethanol. The Central Florida Pipeline is a rare exception, moving ethanol and gasoline in batches across a flat terrain since 2009.24
As noted by the US Energy Information Administration:25
The Norfolk Southern railroad imports biofuels by train to Thoroughbred Bulk Transfer terminals in Alexandria, Petersburg, and Roanoke. CSX has ethanol terminals in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Richmond, and Fredericksburg. CSX may also transport ethanol to the storage and distribution hub at the former oil refinery in Yorktown. CSX announced plans in 2012 to extend its line of ethanol terminals further north to Prince William County, building a new facility near the existing Possum Point power plant and the developing Potomac Shores community. As described by CSX:26
Norfolk Southern operates an ethanol transloading terminal in the Van Dorn rail yard in Alexandria, from which trucks carry ethanol to gasoline tank farms in Springfield and in Fairfax City. Alexandria officials object to the ethanol transfer terminal within the city boundaries. Though Alexandria developed as a transportation hub in the 1800's, today its economy is based on professionals who work in offices, high-end retail, and tourism. The former Potomac Yard, where rail cars were classified and lined up into trains headed to various destinations for almost a century, is being transformed into a mixed-use community with residential developments.27
Industrial operations transferring a flammable, hazardous material from rail to truck are considered by the city to be an inappropriate use near communities such as such as Cameron Station. Tanker trucks carrying ethanol through city streets are considered safety risks and traffic impediments. As noted in Alexandria's lawsuit attempting to regulate activities at the Van Dorn ethanol transfer facility:28
The Federal Surface Transportation Board and the a Federal judge ruled in 2009 that local land use controls and truck-hauling permits are trumped by Federal laws for interstate rail operations, so Alexandria could not require Norfolk Southern to obtain city permits for operating the ethanol transfer facility at the Van Dorn rail yard. However, state air quality permits would be required for the railroad to increase transfer capacity from 14 to 30 tanker cars, as Norfolk Southern proposed in May 2013.29
If oil and gas is discovered in commercial quantities under the Outer Continental Shelf of Virginia, gathering pipelines will be constructed to move the hydrocarbons from wells to tank farms onshore. The Gulf Coast is already criss-crossed by underwater pipelines, demonstrating how such infrastructure could be built off the Virginia coast without interfering excessively with Navy/Coast Guard operations, shipping traffic, and the dredging of shipping channels.
Based on the Submerged Lands Act passed by the US Congress in 1953, the Federal government would be responsible for permitting the use of the ocean bottom, more than three miles offshore. Within three miles of the coastline, the state of Virginia would authorize use of submerged lands for pipelines.
Location of any new underwater oil pipeline would depend upon the location of a new oil refinery on the East Coast, or a pipeline connection to the existing refineries in the Philadelphia-New Jersey area. If the pipeline was not constructed underwater directly to the Delaware River, it could come ashore in Virginia in Hampton Roads. One speculative destination: the old Yorktown refinery, where another expansion of Colonial Pipeline could transport crude oil north to existing refineries.