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Volume 17, Number 5September/October 1966

In This Issue

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At the far end of the pipeline, high above the Mediterranean, stand the silver tanks of Tapline’s…


Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

By definition a terminal is usually the end of something, not the beginning. But the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Terminal at Sidon is both an end and a beginning. It is the end of the long steel pipeline that links the oil fields of Saudi Arabia with the Mediterranean and it is the beginning of the Mediterranean tanker routes over which much of the oil from Saudi Arabia moves to the markets of Europe and beyond.

Prior to the construction of the Trans-Arabian pipeline, the only way to transport crude oil from the fields of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) to Europe or anywhere else was by tanker. It was a costly trip—since tankers had to either pay expensive Suez Canal tolls or make the long haul around Africa. It was also a long way. Via the canal a round trip measured 6,250 miles. An overland shortcut, obviously, made a lot of economic sense but the only shortcut possible would be a pipeline reaching from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean and the obstacles were staggering. It would be the longest pipeline in the world—752 miles, plus some 300 miles of line owned by Aramco—and probably the most expensive.

The companies that own Aramco, however, decided that Saudi Arabia's proven reserves and the certainty of a soaring demand for oil in postwar Europe outweighed the obstacles. They formed the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company—Tapline—and ordered their engineers into action. Five years later the engineers finished the pipeline and the first oil trickled into the line and across Saudi Arabia to the hills of Lebanon. It reached Sidon on November 10, 1950 and from that day on has never stopped. Today, 465,000 barrels a day—nearly 20,000,000 U.S. gallons—travel steadily across Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and into the complex of tanks, valves, underwater lines and tanker berths that comprise the Sidon Terminal.

The operation of Sidon Terminal seems basically simple: route the oil into the tanks, store it there until the tankers arrive, hook up the underwater lines and hoses to the tanker and open the valves until the tanker is loaded.

As in most of the petroleum industry's operations, however, the reality is vastly more complicated than the appearance. In today's highly competitive oil industry, a terminal must strive unflaggingly to load tankers faster and more safely. Furthermore, to control such enormous amounts of oil requires foresight, planning and coordination of the highest order. With 465,000 barrels a day now pouring into the terminal, the 20 storage tanks, each with a capacity of 180,000 barrels, could be filled in just over a week. Thus the number and capacity of the tankers calling at the terminal and the time it takes to load them must be carefully calculated to insure that the discharge of oil is roughly equivalent to the throughput of the pipeline. This in turn must be coordinated in New York with the output of other oil fields, the fluctuations of demand and the movements of tanker fleets.

The most careful planning, however, cannot anticipate all emergencies. Problems—expensive problems—often develop when storms close the port for prolonged periods. With tankers unable to draw their scheduled rations, the storage tanks quickly reach capacity and the throughput in the pipeline must be reduced. Then, after the port is reopened, the backed-up tankers drain off the available supplies, forcing subsequent customers to wait until additional oil can come through the line. To insure that this will not occur too often, Tapline is now completing two more storage tanks, each with a capacity of 500,000 barrels. They will be among the largest storage tanks in the Middle East and will increase the terminal's capacity to se level sufficient, in most instances, to absorb the pipeline throughput without reducing the flow.

A large part of Sidon's success stems from efficient preparation. Under the system in operation now, tanker owners must notify Tapline far in advance via Aramco and Tapline offices in New York and Beirut what ship will be dispatched, who her owner is, how much oil she will want, and when her captain expects to call at Sidon. The ship's captain continues to keep Tapline's dispatcher in Beirut informed of his progress until he can give an exact time of arrival. Since this is usually three days in advance the terminal has time to insure that an adequate supply of petroleum will be available as soon as the tanker drops anchor at one of the four deep-water loading berths and the heavy-duty rubber loading hoses are coupled to her manifold When this is done the valves on the storage-tanks are opened and—via gravity feed—the oil begins to flow swiftly into as many as four ships at a time. Rates vary but last May the terminal notched a new record by loading 730,950 barrels at an average rate of 58,953 barrels per hour. Generally the larger the ship, the faster it can be loaded. It takes about 5 hours, for example, to load ships up to 20,000 deadweight tons but only about 10 hours for an 80,000-DWT supertanker.

The Sidon Terminal loaded its first tanker on December 2,1950, and from that day until the end of 1965, 11,212 tankers have called at Sidon. Though the number of ships has dropped sharply the total amount loaded has been steadily increasing. In 1954, for instance, 898 ships called at Sidon each taking aboard an average of 130,000 barrels, whereas in 1965 only 605 ships called, but loaded more than twice as much oil.

Some of the tankers calling at Sidon are "regulars," commuting, as it were, between a certain refinery and Sidon. But more than half of the ships only make the trip once. "Unannounced" customers practically never show up—a mere half dozen since operations started, 16 years ago.

There have been many developments in the oil industry since Tapline was planned and built. The size of tankers, for example, has increased at an astonishing pace—from a World War II standard of 16,000 deadweight tons to the gigantic 300,000 ton tankers now on order in Japan. To compete effectively, Tapline—which was designed originally to compete with the 16,000-ton T-2's of World War II—has had to improve its efficiency constantly. Sidon, for example, pioneered full centralized control of loading facilities and seven point moorings for larger tankers. The terminal also introduced 12-inch, and, later, 16-inch underwater hoses.

By such innovations, Tapline has achieved one of the fastest, yet safest, turnaround-time records in the Mediterranean. Even in an age when tankers are carrying crude oil at two-thirds what it cost in tankers of the 1940's, Tapline has held its own and intends to continue doing so in the challenging years ahead.

This article appeared on pages 29-32 of the September/October 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1966 images.