WALL STREET JOURNAL: Crude Slump, Pipeline Expansion Mark End of U.S. Oil-Train Boom

Repost from the Wall Street Journal

Crude Slump, Pipeline Expansion Mark End of U.S. Oil-Train Boom

As more pipelines reach shale regions, producers have a cheaper way to move their oil to market
By ALISON SIDER and LAURA STEVENS, July 25, 2016 6:00 p.m. ET
Even at its height in 2014, crude-by-rail accounted for less than 2% of total rail volumes.
Even at its height in 2014, crude-by-rail accounted for less than 2% of total rail volumes. PHOTO: DAVID PAUL MORRIS/BLOOMBERG NEWS

The oil-train boom is waning almost as quickly as it began.

Rail became a major way to move crude after companies began unlocking new bounties of oil from shale formations, with volumes rising from almost nothing in 2009 to more than one million barrels a day by 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But those numbers began falling after oil prices started tumbling two years ago, and aren’t projected to recover anytime soon. In April, just 430,000 barrels of oil rode the rails each day, according to the latest federal figures.

Some of the decline came from a drop in U.S. oil production, but oil and rail executives say the drop-off may be permanent. “At least some portion, and it could be a pretty large portion,” of the rail business won’t return, said Union Pacific Corp. Chief ExecutiveLance Fritz.

More pipelines have begun reaching North Dakota and other shale regions, giving producers a cheaper way to move their oil to market.

Also, a string of fiery crude-freight-train derailments—including one in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people in 2013—have prompted a host of new and expensive regulations, and fueled opposition that has helped delay major rail projects on the West Coast, where a dearth of pipelines makes rail useful. Regulators have mandated new safer tank cars, and older tank cars are being phased out—adding to future costs for transporting oil.

The changes are evident in North Dakota, once the epicenter of the crude-by-rail trend. Oil output from the state’s Bakken Shale formation has fallen by 180,000 barrels a day from its 2014 peak. Meanwhile, pipeline takeaway capacity has more than doubled since 2010.

EOG Resources Inc., one of the first oil companies to see the potential for trains to relieve pipelines, opened its first rail loading terminal in Stanley, N.D., in 2009. But that terminal hasn’t loaded a train in more than a year, according to Genscape, a data provider that tracks activity at U.S. rail terminals.

“New pipeline infrastructure has been put in place to move significant volumes of oil to market,” an EOG spokeswoman said.

Enough pipeline capacity is coming online to replace all of the current volume BNSF Railway Co. is shipping out of North Dakota, said David Garin, the railroad’s group vice president of industrial products.

BNSF used to transport as many as 12 trains daily filled with crude primarily from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, carrying about 70% of all rail traffic out of the area. Now it is down to about five a day.

“Will this business be back to 12 trains a day? Probably not,” said Mr. Garin. “Will it be zero? Probably not.”

Even at its height in 2014, crude-by-rail accounted for less than 2% of total rail volumes, according to Association of American Railroads data. But its decline threatens what was once viewed as a sizable driver of growth for the railroad industry, one that many rail companies, along with oil and gas producers, made investments to support.

Between 2010 and 2015, 89 terminals were built or expanded in the U.S. and Canada to load crude on trains, and nearly as many to offload it, according to consulting firm RBN Energy LLC.

The oil pouring out of U.S. fields was so much cheaper—more than $20 a barrel below international benchmark prices at times—that refineries were eager to pay higher rail shipping costs in exchange for some of it.

New pipelines have helped shrink that price difference by allowing the landlocked oil to reach market. And the U.S. has lifted a ban on crude exports, which allows American crude to be sent abroad freely and is expected to help keep U.S. and international crude prices more closely aligned.

Now oil trains are competing against tanker ships carrying foreign crude. Analysts say rail deliveries are likely to fall even further once shipping contracts signed during the boom expire in the coming months.

There could soon be more than enough space to carry away all Bakken oil through pipelines now in the works. Phillips 66 is partnering with pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners LP to develop a pair of pipelines that will bring North Dakota crude to Illinois and then down to Texas.

The endeavor, which will cost close to $5 billion, is expected to take a major bite out of oil train traffic, even though the pipelines will ultimately bring oil to the Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico, rather than to the East and West coasts, where trains have primarily taken it.

Phillips 66 said earlier this year it may still be cheaper to take that oil and put it on a barge for delivery by sea to the coasts than to send it directly there by train.