Let's call it Barrel X — 42 gallons of crude oil from a well at Abqaiq in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia near the Persian Gulf. Over a thousand miles to the west, a 200,000-barrel tanker rides at anchor in the port of Sidon, Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea. Barrel X is ready for market; the tanker is waiting for a cargo. The problem is to get them together — economically, efficiently and fast.
The question is how?
The Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company found an answer ten years ago: A 30-31-inch pipeline linking the Mediterranean with the heart of the Arabian desert. For 750 miles, it snakes across Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; then it hooks up at Qaisumah with. 300 miles of line that "gathers" crude oil from the various Arabian American Oil Company fields in eastern Saudi Arabia and forms one of the largest crude oil pipeline systems in the world.
Suppose we follow one barrel — Barrel X — on its 11-day trip through the maze of pipes, pumps and tanks from the producing fields in the east to that tanker berthed off the coast of Lebanon, 1,000 miles away.
Barrel X is brought up from a well, 7,500 feet deep, and then travels for about three days through Aramco's gathering pipelines to Qaisumah where the amount of oil that moves through the pipeline is measured and made ready for an eight-day trip to the sea. So far, most of the trip has been underground. Much of the eastern section of the pipeline was "ditched," for it passes through an area of shifting sand dunes which constantly pile up under the buffeting of fiery winds from the north. In the northwestern part of Arabia, with its rocky plains, much of the line was constructed above ground.
Qaisumah is the first of four pump station communities — Qaisumah, Rafha, Badanah and Turaif — which apply pressure to Barrel X to keep it moving westward. An additional boost is given the oil by remote controlled pumps located to the east of each big pump station. Together, these stations and radio operated Auxiliary Pumping Units (APU's, as they are called), act like men in a bucket brigade, passing Barrel X along from one hand to another. Tapline normally transports about one-third of the crude oil produced by the Arabian American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia. The daily capacity of the pipeline is 470,000 barrels. Throughput (the number of barrels pushed through the line) last year averaged 337,985 barrels a day.
As Barrel X leaves Qaisumah and approaches Shu'bah, the first Auxiliary Pumping Unit, the pipeline rises above ground. The terrain here is flat, sparsely populated and underlaid with rock. The line is constructed on steel supports. Here and there, sand has been pushed up against the pipe to make an overpass bridge so that camels can clamber across. For some reason, camels refuse to step over an exposed pipeline.
From Shu'bah, the traveler — Barrel X — is boosted westward through the pump station at Rafha and the auxiliary unit at 'Uwaigilah. These auxiliary units with their powerful gas turbines and accompanying equipment, are housed in giant, portable, aluminum-clad vans. The turbine which drives the pumps draws its fuel from the oil in the pipeline.
Barrel X has now traveled over 350 miles since leaving Qaisumah. The next stop is Badanah. "Stop" isn't really the right word — the oil is always moving — but when Barrel X arrives at the main gate at Badanah its pressure is almost down to zero. A series of small booster pumps takes Barrel X and moves it along to the main pump house — the major installation at Badanah—where its pressure is built up to a husky 1,040 pounds per square inch.
Barrel X is only one of 3,460,000 barrels of crude oil present in the pipeline at one time. On an average, 20,000 barrels pass through Badanah every hour. The tremendous quantity of crude oil handled by Tapline and the great distance it must be transported explains why pumping units like Badanah are so necessary: If Tapline attempted to propel oil directly from Qaisumah to Sidon, they would have to build up tremendous pumping pressure — at Qaisumah, the starting point. Such pressure, at least 7,000 pounds per square inch, would mean using pipe three inches thick to withstand the stress. Instead, the more practical method of boosting the pressure on the oil at key intervals along the line is used.
An elaborate electronic control panel at the pump house follows and directs the various movements of Barrel X, as it travels westward, through Badanah's auxiliary unit at Jalamid, and on to Turaif, the next station where its control is then taken over. The pumping unit at Jalamid is remote controlled by VHF (very high frequency) radio from Badanah. The 5,000 h.p. combustion gas turbine is the most powerful unit of its kind presently in oil pumping service.
Badanah and Jalamid together produce close to 19,000 h.p. — equivalent to the power of a small ocean liner.
But these technical installations — the pump house, huge storage tanks, garage and warehouse — are only a part of the pump stations like Badanah. Like many small American towns supported by a single industry, Badanah is a community in itself. There are about 190 Tapline employees at the station most of whom live in housing provided for them. The residential and recreational areas are landscaped with shade trees—poplar, eucalyptus, chinaberry.
A community center is the focal point of social life. Among other things it offers a dining hall, library, snack bar and a lounge. Areas are set aside for motion pictures, ping-pong and billiards, and dances are often held at night on the sun-deck pavilion. A tennis court and a golf course nearby provide outdoor recreation, and behind it a modern guest house for visitors was completed early last year.
But the Tapline hospital is perhaps the most impressive of the features found in the Badanah community. A staff of 60, including seven doctors and 30 nurses, operates a modern medical center for the use of all employees and the local Arab population. This 32-bed hospital treats six to eight thousand patients each month and is set up to handle anything but the most specialized of surgical operations. It works closely with the local government in treating disease and fighting epidemics; and it has cooperated with the American University of Beirut on a number of medical research projects.
The adjacent town of Ar'ar, founded only 13 years ago, grew step by step with Badanah and has since become the administrative capital of the Northern Province of Saudi Arabia. Construction is going on steadily at Ar'ar, prompted in part by Tapline's Home Ownership Program which offers home-building loans to Saudi Arab employees.
The town's strategic location and unique facilities have resulted in a population boom; Ar'ar alone has over 5,000 people. The suq, or marketplace, is developing into the commercial center of the area, and it is no surprise that the watering troughs there, in the middle of an area that has been dry for 2,000 years or more, draw thousands of nomadic herdsmen to the town each year. The troughs were provided by Tapline from water sources that had been drilled to supply thirsty pipeline workers back in the days when the big line was being built. More than 7,000 camels have been watered at Ar'ar in a single day.
Meanwhile, Barrel X has climbed 1,778 feet above sea level on its trip to Badanah. As it moves on toward Turaif, the land continues to slope upward toward the mountains in the west. After crossing the border of Saudi Arabia a few miles beyond Turaif, the 80-mile stretch across Jordan is covered with hard basalt and volcanic lava, disintegrated into chunks ranging from a few pounds to as much as several tons. This is the location of the last of the turbine pumping units at a place called Qaryatain.
Beyond Jordan, Barrel X moves across the southern tip of the Syrian Region of the United Arab Republic — a land that closely resembles west Texas and New Mexico.
At the Syria-Lebanon frontier, Barrel X begins its descent into the beautiful Bekaa Valley, which runs north ward between two mountain ranges, the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon. The next stop — and this time the stop is a real one — is the Sidon Terminal in Lebanon and the hold of a tanker riding the blue Mediterranean.