Pipeline explosion a lesson in worldwide energy policyby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
The shutdown of major oil pipelines running through Clearbrook, Minnesota, is providing a surprising lesson about Minnesota's role in world oil markets. Oil prices fluctuated Thursday as oil buyers waffled on how much of problem they thought the shutdown would cause. Contracts to buy oil at set prices in the future rose as much as 5 percent before dropping back down.
St. Paul, Minn. — The pipelines, which cut across northern Minnesota, and Wisconsin, are critical components in supplying the oil needs of the Upper Midwest and the rest of the United States. Their shutdown Wednesday evening shook world oil markets.
The pipelines, operated by Enbridge Energy of Canada, carry crude from Saskatchewan to the Chicago area. They also also connect with pipelines to North Dakota and the Twin Cities.
Doug MacIntyre, senior oil market analyst for the U.S. Energy Information Administration, says the market's reaction to the shutdown of the pipelines was no surprise.
"It's the major pipeline coming from Canada, which is our No. 1 source of imports," he said. "And even more than that, it really is one of the primary sources of crude oil into the Upper Midwest part of the country."
The pipelines carry most of the oil we get from Canada, which sends nearly two million barrels of oil to the U.S. every day. That works out to about one-fifth of U.S. crude oil imports.
The pipelines were shut down after an explosion Wednesday in Clearwater that killed two workers.
Two of the four pipelines that run through Clearbrook have re-opened. A third was expected to be back in service Thursday. And the fourth could be repaired and back in operation in two to three days.
"This is probably something that doesn't wind up on the radar screen of consumers," says Dan Pickering, a research analyst at Texas-based Tudor Pickering and Co.
Pickering says oil traders' worries about the pipelines came and went quickly.
"The outage doesn't look like it will last very long," Pickering said. "So, the expectation of how bad for how long? The answer was, it was bad. But not for very long, assuming they can get the pipeline fixes in place. So crude goes up four bucks. Now it's up 40 cents."
The Flint Hills refinery in Rosemount relies heavily on Canadian crude oil to meet the thirst of local consumers for gasoline and other petroleum products. But Flint Hills spokesman John Hofland says he doesn't expect the pipeline problems to create any headaches for the refinery.
"We don't expect much of an impact on our refinery here, since they got three of four pipelines back in operation -- and it sounds like the final one will be a couple of days," Hofland said. "Now that there's a clearer schedule in terms of repairs and the other three lines, the fact they weren't impacted, it won't really disrupt our operations."
In a pinch, the refinery can rely more on pipelines from the South and other parts of the country. Even if the pipeline shutdown had turned into a bigger problem, the Upper Midwest was apparently pretty well positioned to deal with it. Ron Planting of the American Petroleum Institute said regional fuel supplies were good.
"Even before this incident occurred, we were looking at fairly adequate inventories in the Midwest," Planting said. "We had crude oil inventories of about 63 million barrels, which is about average for this time of year. Product stocks were also in good shape."
But if the repair work takes longer than expected, that could spook the oil markets again. MacIntyre of the Energy Information Administration says the oil markets are quick to respond to any news concerning supplies.
- All Things Considered, 11/29/2007, 5:24 p.m.