Crossroads of the Oil World
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Netherlands Antilles
BIG ships, some of them the world’s largest, come to Curaçao’s Bullen Bay. They do not come to this tropical island in the Netherlands Antilles with tourists or vacationers. Rather, they come with the one precious commodity that is in great demand around the world—oil.
To be economically feasible, crude oil must be shipped in very large quantities, in supertankers. These VLCC’s (Very Large Crude Carriers), as they are commercially called, can carry from 150,000 to 500,000 tons of oil, and require harbor facilities with depths of 50 to 95 feet (15 to 29 m) of water. There are not many ports around the world that can handle this kind of ship. In fact, in all the United States, the largest oil consumer, there is not one that can handle even the smallest VLCC’s, those in the 150,000-ton range. This is where Bullen Bay comes in.
Crude oil from the Middle East and Western Africa is brought here by the VLCC’s. From here, it is reloaded onto smaller tankers and shipped to the United States and other destinations. Likewise, oil from Venezuela and Mexico is shipped here in smaller tankers and is then carried by the VLCC’s to points worldwide. Little is it known that Bullen Bay is the site of the world’s largest oil-transshipment terminal, the crossroads of the oil world.
What makes Curaçao the ideal location for such an operation is the fact that the shoreline around the island is virtually free from hidden rocks, reefs or shoals. The inviting clear blue-green water around the island is so deep that there is a story circulating among the locals that the island of Curaçao is like a toadstool sitting on top of a stem in the Caribbean Sea. Someday, so the story goes, the stem is going to snap, and the island will tumble into the sea. In the meantime, however, deep-water harbors around the island, such as Bullen Bay, serve as a vital link in the oil world.
Another natural asset is Curaçao’s favorable climate. Year around, the temperature is in the low 80’s (26-29 C.), the humidity is low, there is never a foggy day, and the tide seldom varies more than three feet (1 m). In a word, the weather is stable—just what sea captains would hope for. Why, the oil terminal at Bullen Bay has never lost a day’s work on account of bad weather! The only mishap on record was a storage tank that was hit by lightning on one occasion, but with no serious damage.
Big Tanks and Pipelines
Central to the facilities here are the 61 gleaming, silver storage tanks. One of them is so mammoth that when it was constructed, a soccer game was played in it to dramatize its size. It is the biggest in the western hemisphere. It alone can hold up to one million barrels of oil. Together, all the tanks have a storage capacity of 17.5 million barrels. This is more than twice the amount of oil imported by the United States each day.
A complicated network of pipelines and pumps connect up all the tanks and the six piers or jetties where tankers load and unload their cargoes. “The beauty of the pipeline setup,” says the terminal’s operations manager, “is that the oil can go through any tank, any line, any pump and any jetty.” This flexibility allows the terminal to handle up to 20 different grades of crude oil at once.
One of these is the heavy crude from Venezuela. It is so dense that it will turn solid if left at normal temperature. Three specially insulated hot tanks, with a total capacity of one million barrels, along with an independent insulated pipeline system, keep the heavy crude molten while it’s unloaded from the smaller tankers or reloaded on the VLCC’s for their long journey to Europe, Japan and elsewhere. This unique feature is apparently so profitable that the slogan was coined: “Hot storage tanks offer cold cash benefits.”
While the main business at Bullen Bay is oil, it is mixed with water—ballast water. Tankers that come for oil are loaded with fresh water as ballast. Instead of being dumped into the sea, up to one million tons of this fresh water is reclaimed by the efficient deballasting station at the terminal each year. This is an important contribution to the welfare of the island, since fresh water is otherwise obtained only by distillation of seawater, a very expensive process.
All in a Day’s Work
Every day about one million barrels of oil move through Bullen Bay. When a supertanker arrives, it may take as many as three of the large tanks to receive its cargo. To unload it may tie up one of the six piers and the associated pumps and pipelines for 40 to 48 hours. Other tankers may come in to take the oil away. And in any given day there may be a dozen or more tankers moving in and out of the terminal. When it comes to scheduling the operations, “it’s rather like a jigsaw,” says a project manager.
All of this is directed by the operations room inside the office building. Through 10 video screens and remote control, skilled operators can monitor and control everything that is going on. A well-equipped laboratory, as well as sophisticated portable electronic equipment, maintain a constant surveillance on the quality of each shipment. All of this has earned the terminal the enviable title ‘the Rolls Royce of oil terminals.’
This Bullen Bay terminal never closes. Tankers of all sorts and sizes come and go at any time of the day and night. But this is hardly noticed by the thousands of tourists that come and go, much less by the millions of people elsewhere whose livelihood depends on the cargo that flows through this largest oil-transshipment terminal of the world.
[Map/Picture on page 19]
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