Jul 8, 2019
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Tank Truck Driver Shortage Slowing Oil Boom

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American dependence on foreign energy resources is at an all-time low. The United States Department of Energy reports that the yield from seven of the most significant shale formations will rise to 8.52 million barrels per day (bpd) in July 2019. Much of that increase will come from the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico. In response, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is to stave off more declines in prices.

Even with less petroleum from overseas, American consumers can still look forward to stable prices and continuous flow. Although the severity of summer heat has a lot to say about the consumption (which, of course, affects price), the strong showing on domestic production helps to offset the otherwise volatile values that accompany turmoil in the near east. Some price increase is beneficial for American producers.

Why The Truck Driver Shortage for Hauling Oil Is A Problem

There is a severe shortage of truck drivers trained in the tank truck specialty that the positive growth in production as forecast by the federal government could be severely curtailed by up to 40 percent. The situation is especially pronounced in the Permian Basin region, where massive driver layoffs occurred in 2014-2015 due to plummeting prices. The volatility associated with tank truck driving makes recruiting new personnel difficult. Aggravating the situation is the generally positive employment picture in the Basin region — an instance where good economic news in the present is also foreboding for the future.

This shortage of drivers reflects a decades-old pattern that has dogged the oil industry. When discoveries were fewer and far between in the 1980s, the hiring halt forfeited an entire generation of oil field labor. Whether the truck driver shortage can be adequately filled depends on faith in the industry to employ for the long haul (no pun intended!).

The Unique Craft of Hauling Oil

While trucking is a lucrative and challenging trade in and of itself, transporting petroleum and gasoline poses further demands to drivers. There are 

  • Fuel, Gasoline and Diesel Tankers
    Convey gasoline for road vehicles; diesel fuel for trucks and tractors; and even high-octane jet fuel. 
  • Chemical Tankers
    Move chemical materials as diverse as liquid fertilizers and pesticides; glycol; cleaning solvents and alcohol.
  • Pneumatic Tankers
    Transport dry product, e.g., plastic pellets, sugar, and cement.
  • Food Tankers
    Carry liquid agricultural yields like milk, wine, and animal fat
  • Propane Tankers
    Deliver liquid propane.

Each of these conveyances comes with specific techniques and regulations for loading, unloading, and hauling. Some types–petroleum, for example–call for 24/7 availability by drivers whereas others offer more civilized schedules. Of course, the greater the driver flexibility, often the better the pay.

Shipping fuel is frequently a short haul, given the numerous refineries located around the United States. Specialized training is required for several reasons. Among them is the fact that gasoline and diesel fuel are hazardous materials. Highly flammable, they are also ecologically harmful if leaked or spilled. Besides, drivers are usually solely responsible for unloading the contents of the tanker, unlike a general merchandise hauler who backs up to a loading dock where warehouse staff receives the freight.

Given the delicate nature of moving fuel, the truck driver’s most demanding venues are the small gas stations at which they must negotiate the tank trailer in limited space while dodging the automobiles that arrive and depart. This is where competent and thorough training pay off for both driver and employer. 

Demand for Fuel Fluctuates

Greater supply has some effect on the need for drivers, but that can be offset by low demand. Over the winter of 2018-2019, for example, sales at the pumps were at a two-year low, according to the Automobile Association of America. Demand is often a seasonal prospect. Years of observation demonstrate ascending prices throughout the spring, reaching their zenith during the summer travel season. Winter typically sees lower prices attached to gasoline (though home heating fuel may buck this trend).

Another factor in the rise and decline of energy costs is international demand. As countries like China and India continue to grow in economic prosperity, their need for more fuel continues to grow.

Another variable is nature: hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can create pipeline and delivery obstructions, making available gasoline more costly. Hurricane Katrina of late summer 2005 is a model example of such phenomena

Tanker Truck Driver Qualifications

Granting the reality of price peaks and valleys, as well as those inevitable reasons for the variations, driving tank trucks is nevertheless a higher tier–economically and professionally–in an already well-paying trade. As such, these drivers are subject to additional rules and regulations imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and federal transportation authorities. The vehicle inspection standards are specific to tanker trucks; fluids and liquids have different densities thereby affecting weight limits; rollovers are more commonplace among these trucks so speed limits should be lower; and, similarly, criteria for safe road conditions are higher for petroleum trucks.

Knowledge of hazardous material (HAZMAT) handling, laws, and dangers are essential for the tank truck operator to possess. Some states mandate a Class A commercial driver’s license (as opposed to Class B) for fuel truck driving regardless of the weight of the trailer and its contents. A HAZMAT endorsement can accompany the CDL; many employers want this, as well. To succeed in this type of commercial transportation, then, a prospective driver needs the best training available. With such education in hand, driving opportunities abound.

Taking the First Step

To become a truck driver for oil/gas/diesel, candidates must be at least 21 years of age, citizens or residents of the United States, and be documented as healthy by a physician (passing an eye exam is also necessary). Besides, they are subject to a background check by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that can take up to two months to complete. Importantly, prospects must show a thorough knowledge of the handling of HAZMATs and tanker operations. This expertise is awarded by one or two endorsements.

Education is Crucial.

Key to becoming proficient in HAZMAT management and tanker truck procedures is obtaining excellent training. Modern instruction can include book study, practical in-truck exercises and–more recently–simulated driving, comparable to the computer simulation programs used in pilot flight training.

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