How Pipelines Ship Refinery Products to the Pump | RefinerLink

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How Pipelines Ship Refinery Products to the Pump

By Ralph Laurel

Sep 10, 2018

Insights on how products flow from an oil refinery to the pump.


Many oil refineries are constructed near major cities, but still require additional logistics to efficiently deliver refined products (i.e. gasoline and diesel) to local service stations.  Some refineries can ship products directly to a gas station through their own on-site Terminal, but many refiners rely on product pipelines to ship finished product to off-site terminals.


Everyone surely has seen tanker trucks transport fuel to a gas station, but many do not realize that most of these tanker trucks fill up at terminals instead of the actual oil refinery.  Terminals are not as hazardous to the community as refineries, so many terminals can be placed in close proximity to population centers. 


Terminals are just a collection of storage tanks and truck offloading facilities, so they can enable convenient resupply of local gas stations.   An oil refinery produces gasoline, jet, and diesel, and ships the products underground through product pipelines to these terminals.   Small tanker trucks can then load products from terminals and distribute fuel to various service stations over several quick round trips.




Product pipelines are particularly interesting because one pipeline can carry many different types of products (gasoline vs diesel) and also many different grades of products (premium gasoline vs regular gasoline).  An observant person may ask “well, how can you ship different types of products and not mix them all up”?  The answer lies in the product shipping order sequence and the pumping rates. 


Let’s take a typical refinery that ships 4 different products on one product pipeline:

  1. Heating Oil
  2. Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel
  3. 87 Octane Gasoline
  4. 93 Octane Gasoline


Generally speaking, the most optimal way to ship these product out of the refinery in the following order.

  1. 93 Octane Gasoline
  2. 87 Octane Gasoline
  3. Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel
  4. Heating Oil


Since the refinery consumed a great deal of energy to make each finished product, the goal is to minimize product downgrade during shipping.  This is done by sequencing Like products next to one another.



  • In the example above, the two gasoline products are shipped next to each other since they are very similar in specs.  It is very easy to blend 93 Octane into 87 Octane product, so pipeline shippers can put the interface layer between these two products into the same tank as the less stringent product - in this case it is 87 Octane Gasoline. 


  • The Gasoline batch and Diesel batch are placed next to each other because they have similar amounts of sulfur.  However, Gasoline and Diesel products are very dissimilar, so a terminal cannot easily put this interface into either the gasoline or diesel product tank.  The interface layer between Gasoline and Diesel is often times sent back to the refinery for reprocessing.  This material is commonly referred to as “Transmix”, and requires additional costs to turn back into finished product again.


  • Similar to the two gasoline batches, the interface between the Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel and Heating Oil can be combined into the Heating Oil tank since Heating Oil is just a very low quality diesel. 


As you can imagine, the greater the number of different batches that are shipped over the pipeline, the higher amount of interface material is downgraded.  Efficient refiners schedule pipeline batches in as high volumes as possible to reduce the amount of interface material created.


Most refineries have several pipelines that can carry products to different areas.  Depending on how many cities, states, or countries a refinery supplies, there can be multiple pipelines that carry product to various terminals.  An intricate supply chain web can be created as some terminals connect to additional terminals, and so on. 


One interesting note to mention is that while Jet fuel can go through a terminal similar to Gasoline and Diesel, Jet fuel continues down the path of pipelines to reach its end destination.  Many major airports have receiving facilities on site, so jet is pumped directly from a terminal to the airport storage tanks.


The next time you fill up at a station, or see a tanker truck carry fuel around, you now understand that your gasoline or diesel product likely shipped through a terminal before reaching your service station.

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  • Randy Zuk :   Much of it is shipped by pipeline to major cities

    Jan 31, 2016

  • Fred Barney :   What a great, little primer! Thanks.

    Feb 03, 2016

  • Tom Linek :   So do different refineries share these pipelines? It would seem so since the pipeline issue in Alabama appears to be effecting all brands.

    Sep 20, 2016

  • Adeck :   Most of the times multiple refineries share a common pipeline. There are more "common-carrier" (owned by 3rd parties and services multiple shippers) pipelines that transport product throughout our country than "proprietary" (owned by single company for sole use of that company) pipelines. There are several large pipeline companies such as Kinder Morgan, Plains, and Enterprise that serve the industry.

    Sep 20, 2016

  • Darklord :   What an awesome primer. Can you expand the blog to cover the refiner & terminal products business. Introducing some lingo like Customer Carrier Inventory product, saleable product and certain federal regulations, additives, company owned and franchise models etc. THere is very little information on the web related to this business and I beleive it will be very helpful.

    Oct 08, 2016

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    Jan 04, 2017

  • Gary :   How is the amount of oil shipped through the pipeline measured? and is there ever residual amount of oil remaining in the pipeline after transmission?

    Aug 17, 2017

  • Roger :   There are various types of meters that can be used. Most common flow meter for liquids is an orifice meter, which measures the pressure drop across an orifice to calculate volume flow. The more accurate meter, which is often used for pipeline operations when custody transfer occurs from one party to another is a coriolis meter (i.e. mass flow). There is always residual oil remaining in a pipe throughout transmission, but the pipes are always packed with fluid, so you are just mixing the remnants of one product batch shipment with the next. That is why product sequencing is important so that you can maintain the product specifications while minimizing slop production.

    Aug 22, 2017

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    Jan 04, 2018

  • Ziga :   Hey, I am doing the presentation on pipeline systems as my University"s project (University of maritime studies and transport - In Slovenia). Im interested mainly in the transportation procesess via piplelines, would you be kind enough to answer me some questions: 1. Since I know about those multi-products pipelines which are used to transport petroleum products, do you happen to know how are single product-pipelines for unrefined oil transport called - to find some more literature on this topic. 2. Can you recommend me some literature on topic of pipelines which is more in depth but still undertandable to a schoolar. Thanks in advance, Žiga Klun.

    Mar 04, 2018

  • Phillip :   Ziga, single product pipelines are often called simply by the name of product they are shipping. For example, crude pipeline, gasoline pipeline, or diesel pipeline. Unrefined oil products can range from crude oil, condensates, naphtha, heavy gasoil to fuel oil.

    Mar 06, 2018

  • Zoe :   Is anyone familiar with ethanol blending at oil terminals in the US? With the Renewable Fuels Standards (RFS) implemented since 2007, I would assume the majority of trucks leaving a petroleum products terminal would be transporting ethanol-blended gasoline; is that a safe assumption for the whole US? How common is it for terminals to transport/distribute unblended gasoline using trucks to another terminal (or tank farm)? In other words, between refineries and final consumers (i.e., gas stations), is "one terminal intermediate" the most common scenario in the US?

    May 10, 2018

  • Tom S :   Zoe - it's a safe assumption for the whole US to be blending ethanol in end-destination terminals to meet some form of renewable fuel standard. By end-destination, I mean terminals that have trucks that lift the final products and distribute to retail service stations. There are still many terminals that act as intermediate terminals that further redistribute products to other terminals, and these terminals may only have pipeline connections from one to another and no truck rack. Your comment about "one terminal intermediate" is not understood, so please elaborate if i haven't already addressed your question.

    May 14, 2018

  • Zoe :   Tom, thanks for the answer! I think you already answered my "one terminal intermediate" with your explanation of terminals further redistributing to other terminals using pipelines. I have one follow-up question if you happen to see my comment again. Do terminals or tank farms never redistribute *unblended gasoline or other petroleum products with *trucks*? Why I have this question:I have this 2012 dataset of shipments coming out of oil terminals, and when I separate out the truck shipments and do an estimate of ethanol contained in those shipments (with an assumption that it's all E10 gasoline in those trucks), the amount of ethanol surpasses total amount available. I assume this is because I falsely assumed all truck shipments are E10 shipments, which means some truck shipments are products other than finished motor gasoline or gasoline that contains an ethanol content way lower than 9%. (But I can't imagine trucks sending out aviation turbine fuel; I thought aviation fuel is mainly sent *directly to airports?)

    May 16, 2018

  • Tom S :   Zoe, it is with certainty that many airports deliver jet fuel via trucks. There are many major airports within the US (and Canada) that take delivery of Jet fuel directly from a terminal by trucks. Also, think about all the small regional airports of even small private airports that still need jet fuel. Also, nearly all of the diesel fuel supplied to terminals are lifted and redistributed to retailers or wholesellers by trucks.

    May 31, 2018

  • Zoe :   Thanks for the answers, Tom!

    May 31, 2018

  • Ali :   Thanks for the informative primer, Thanks for the informative primer, I have a generic question regarding who is operating the Terminals, is it operated by a private company or the same refinery company, i.e. ExxonMobil. On my country, the same oil company is handling the whole process from the refining the oil to distribute it to fuel stations

    Oct 04, 2018

  • Tom S :   Terminal operators will vary from location to location. Sometimes Refinery owners also own the terminals, and sometimes 3rd parties own the terminals. Regardless of ownership, terminals may collect product from many different refineries, or they may be sourced solely from one single refinery. It all just depends on how much control over the supply chain a company wants.

    Oct 13, 2018

  • Miguel Rodriguez-Toral :   Dear experts, Anyone knows about pipeline usage or an emerging technology recommended to use flexible pipelines instead of existing steel pipelines for gasoline transportation...?

    Jan 09, 2019

  • Tom S :   Miguel, i'm not aware of any flexible pipelines used for gasoline transportation...YET. I'm aware of plastic (Polyethylene) pipes being used for gas transportation, but not liquid hydrocarbons yet. I think that it will just be a matter of time until we see them.

    Jan 13, 2019

  • Alam :   what is dgo50/500 when the diesel truck delivers diesel. can there be shortage/over if this is not properly specifed in the meter. when the trucks deliver at service stations.

    Aug 05, 2019

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