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'Planet Money' Oil Makes The Trip From Tanker To Pipeline

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, our Planet Money team is getting into the oil business. Yesterday, you heard how they bought a hundred barrels of crude oil. Today, we follow the oil as it makes its way to the refinery, where it will get turned into gasoline. Stacey Vanek Smith and Robert Smith have the story.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Even though we've already paid for the oil, it is stuck in a tank in the Kansas countryside, and the only way to get there is down a long, bumpy dirt road.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Eventually, a shiny tanker truck pulls up, and the driver gets out. Scott Zimmerman - immaculate blue jumpsuit, white hard hat.

SMITH: How are you not covered in oil? You look clean. I don't see any oil on you. You've been loading oil all day.

SCOTT ZIMMERMAN: Well, you learn. When you first start out, when you go home, you wear more oil at home than you haul. And then over the years, you learn how to stay clean.

SMITH: Which is not easy because Scott pulls out what looks like a giant vacuum cleaner tube and attaches it to the place holding our oil on our tank.

ZIMMERMAN: OK, now he's opened up the tank, and we're going to open up our load lines.

VANEK SMITH: Scott pumps the Planet Money oil into his truck - 100 barrels, 4,200 gallons.

SMITH: Scott starts up the truck and heads on out. He's on his way to a pipeline that will eventually take our oil to a refinery. Now, Scott could just drive our oil straight to the refinery, but transporting oil is one of the biggest factors in the price of oil. And it's a game of saving pennies.

VANEK SMITH: Piping the oil is slightly cheaper than driving it. It's also safer - less chance of a spill.

SMITH: So we jump in our car. We meet Scott and his truck at the pipeline in Shur Station, Kan. And there are gleaming white pipes everywhere. One of them will eventually carry our oil to the CHS refinery in McPherson, Kan., to get made into gasoline.

VANEK SMITH: If it passes the test. Before Scott can put Planet Money's oil into the pipeline to mix with actual professional people's oil, Scott has to do a quality check.

ZIMMERMAN: OK. Now, we're going to get this sample right here.

VANEK SMITH: Scott opens up something that looks like a lobster pot attached to the side of his truck. It is a centrifuge.

ZIMMERMAN: And then I put it in here and spin it out for five minutes.

SMITH: And what are you looking for?

ZIMMERMAN: BS - BS is bottom settlement.

SMITH: And what is that? That's dirt and gook?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, it's just stuff in the oil, yeah. But it lets you know whether the oil's good enough to buy.

SMITH: So you've got a really good BS sensor.

ZIMMERMAN: There you go.

SMITH: If our oil doesn't pass this test, we will be stuck in the middle of Kansas with 100 barrels of terrible crude.

ZIMMERMAN: Well, let's see what we got here.

SMITH: I am so nervous.

ZIMMERMAN: See, we're talking about probably seven-tenths right there.

VANEK SMITH: So is that good or bad or...

ZIMMERMAN: That's viable.

SMITH: It's OK oil.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, that's - there's nothing wrong with that.

VANEK SMITH: So not awesome but good enough to get us in the pipeline.

SMITH: Our oil is now on a 45-mile journey to the refinery. It will take all day to get there. The pipeline only moves at, like, three miles an hour.

VANEK SMITH: Tune into All Things Considered later today when Planet Money's oil finally realizes its destiny and becomes gasoline. Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News, Shur Station, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.