The Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah is among the places in the U.S. where natural gas is being recovered in the ongoing energy boom. As in other areas, great quantities of specially treated water are being used to liberate the gas
from deep underground through a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."
What goes down must come up. That water is captured, temporarily stored on site, then hauled away for disposal. This has meant good business for some tanker trailer makers and carriers.
Activity is continuous, so trucks must be there exactly when needed. It's a highly demanding, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week business, according to executives at Savage Services, headquartered in Salt Lake City.
The family-owned company's 2,500 employees are engaged in far-flung operations that serve the energy, mining, agriculture and manufacturing sectors with logistics and multi-modal transportation.
Savage assumed responsibility for the water-removal work from the gas-production company, which wanted to concentrate on its gas business. The contract called for Savage to manage the transportation of more than 460 million gallons of wastewater at 2,000 well sites each year. It acquired 32 specialized vacuum-tanker rigs to do it, says John Savage, senior vice president and leader of the company's engineering, equipment and procurement group.
Part of landing the contract was making the operation more efficient. Logistics and transport specialists precisely timed hauls to individual tank storage volumes, took the former paper dispatching system paperless, and added on-board communications and navigation devices. The effort cut annual miles by 2.5 million, drastically reducing fuel use and exhaust emissions.
The operation and the dedicated fleet is an example of how it tailors its services to each customer's needs, Savage says.
"Our approach is to make transportation and logistics more efficient for them specifically. We don't have a uniform fleet that we apply across North America."
Twenty-five of the dedicated rigs are five-axle truck and pup-trailer combinations, each with a 3,600-gallon tank on the truck and a 3,000-gallon tank on the trailer, says Ray Alt, senior vice president of equipment. In petroleum industry parlance, that adds up to 157 barrels. Seven other units are tractor-trailers. Each semitrailer has a tridem, making a six-axle combination with a higher weight capacity.
Off-road running prompted the use of the 6x4 straight truck-pup trailer configuration.
"Many areas are only accessible by truck, because they're snowy and slippery in winter," Alt explains. "A straight truck can get through, and is more capable of serving most well sites in any kind of weather. We added pups for higher payloads for those wells that are more easily accessible. And we added semis when we learned that some wells are regularly accessible."
Each truck-and-pup has a gross combined weight rating of 87,000 pounds, legal with proper length and axle spacing in Utah.
Mack built the Granite trucks and tractors, and Polar Tank built the trailers and truck bodies.
Most production-water haulers specify mild carbon steel, usually with some type of lining to protect against interior corrosion. But Savage spec'd Type 316 stainless steel that meets DOT 407 cargo tank certification requirements. The fleet could conceivably use the tankers to haul flammable liquids, including sour crude and corrosives, as well as industrial acids. But these rigs work only on this water haul. Durability and longevity were the reasons for choosing stainless steel.
"Production water is caustic, and mild steel doesn't have the durability or the looks of stainless," Savage says.
"The tanks would otherwise be rusty and scabby. We also didn't have to get into the liners" that would be needed in mild-steel tanks.
"Stainless has three times the life of mild steel," Savage explains, "but doesn't cost three times as much. They require substantially more capital, but if it lasts three times as long, they're worth it."
The rigs were bought in late 2008 and early '09, so some are approaching four years of being in service and continue to perform well and look good.
"Polar was our strategic partner on this project," Alt says. "They clearly understood that we wanted something that wasn't available at the time."
The company is a stickler for safety, and has won awards to prove it. Safety features on the vehicles include Bendix electronic roll-stability control on power units to avoid expensive rollover accidents.
Both the truck and trailer tanks use the same truck-mounted vacuum pump. The trailer's tank attaches to the truck's pump and primary scrubber via a 3-inch hose. Tanks have ground-mounted controls, which eliminate the need for drivers to climb onto tanks. This allowed Alt to spec the tanks without ladders or walkways, saving 450 to 500 pounds per unit.
"Safety and efficiency go hand-in-hand," Savage says. "If you're safe, you're more efficient."
Safety is important to customers in the energy business, where future opportunities are predicated on a strong track record of risk management and compliance. Customers want a supply chain that functions so the product they depend on just appears.
"We committed to our customer that we're going to haul their product at legal weights," Alt says, "and we're not going to spill a drop."
Tanker sales still strong, but leveling out for gas
Sales of tank trailers to support work in the gas and oil fields had been booming, but orders have eased as exploration for natural gas has plateaued, says Frank Maly, director of transportation analysis at ACT Research.
This includes steel water tankers, both for transport and stationary storage, and dry bulk tankers used to carry special sand for hydraulic fracturing, or "tracking," of shale-rock formations deep underground.
However, tankers for other uses are still hot.
"If you ordered a liquid tank now, you would get it about this time next year - one year out," he says. "But the dry bulk side has come down. There are almost 7,000 units in backlog on the liquid side, and under 2,000 on the dry bulk side."
Fracking has had a big impact on the tanker business as the natural gas boom expanded over the last several years, with bulk sand hauler orders "on a roller coaster," Maly says.
"Current drilling rig counts have plateaued over the last couple of months. Late last year, total rig count began to level out, an indication that exploration has slowed down. And trailer equipment demand has slowed down correspondingly."
Natural gas is in oversupply now, stored to capacity in large cryogenic tanks above ground and in underground reservoirs. Bulk gas prices have fallen drastically, removing incentive to explore for and produce more.
"Some of this will take care of itself as we get into winter and demand climbs for heating and for power generation," Maly says. "There's been an increase in the amount of gas being used for electricity generation."
From the October 2012 issue of HDT.