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How Pipelines Work
Crude oil pipelines transport crude oil from production wells and shipping terminals to refineries and chemical plants. At refineries and chemical plants, the oil is processed into refined products and manufactured into hundreds of products used in and around your home. From these manufacturing facilities, pipelines transport the refined products to regional and local distribution center where products are loaded on to tanker trucks and delivered to customers.
From field to refinery to market
Pipeline "gathering systems" collect crude oil produced from onshore and offshore oilfields and carry it to large-diameter "trunk lines." The trunk lines transport the oil to refineries. Oil shipped from overseas and unloaded into storage tanks at coastal terminals is transported by pipeline to refineries as well.
At the refineries, the oil is processed into gasoline and other useful products such as diesel, home heating oil, jet fuel and raw materials for fertilizers, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and plastics. Pipelines transport many of these refined products to distributions centers, where they are moved by truck to gas stations, stores and other markets.
Batching products in the pipe
Different kinds of oil and refined products are shipped back to back through pipelines in "batches." Some mixing occurs at the point where the batches touch. This mixture, called "transmix," is removed from the pipeline at the receiving facility and reprocessed.
Pumps do the pushing
Powerful pumps, located in stations at the start of the pipeline and every 30 to 50 miles along the route, operate around the clock, keeping the oil and refined products moving toward their destination.
Controlling by computer
Operators working in sophisticated central control rooms use computer-aided systems, called SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), to remotely control and monitor flow rates, pressures and characteristics of fluids in the pipeline. Fluctuations can be detected quickly, alerting the operators to potential leaks so they can shut down pipelines and dispatch crews to investigate.