Carbon Express drivers experience trip of a lifetime hauling oilfield drilling fluids to Alaska

Feb. 1, 2019
Bill McNamee was one of 16 Carbon Express drivers who hauled petroleum-based drilling fluids from refineries in Illinois and Texas to Alaska.

AN amazing trip with incredible scenery. The highlight of a 27-year career driving a truck.

That was how Bill McNamee, a veteran truck driver with Wharton, New Jersey-based Carbon Express Inc, described his participation in a special project last year. McNamee was one of 16 Carbon Express drivers who hauled petroleum-based drilling fluids from refineries in Illinois and Texas to Alaska.

The project started when an oil well operator in the northeastern United States asked Carbon Express for help with an expedited shipment of drilling fluid to a site on Alaska’s North Slope. Typically, the product moves in rail tankcars to Alaska, but the drilling rig operation ran short of the fluid and needed a quick resupply.

“Eleven loads were offered, and we initially agreed to take two of them,” says Steve Rush, president and founder of Carbon Express. “Later, we said we could handle all of the loads. Ultimately, we hauled a total of 15 loads of the drilling fluid.”

Oilfield hauling

Carbon Express was already familiar with the drilling fluid, a petroleum-based product that is non-hazardous and non-flammable. The product weighs just 6.4-pounds per gallon.

The tank truck carrier has been involved in oilfield hauling since 2007. “We’ve hauled a lot of oilfield chemicals in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia since the shale boom started,” Rush says. “Our drivers also haul oilfield chemicals to customers in the west and southwest.

“Our typical haul averages 335 miles. The run to Alaska was the longest we’ve ever done. The roughly 4,300-mile trip to Fairbanks took seven days and included a 34-hour restart. The round-trip was 18 days.”

Carbon Express operates primarily in the eastern half of the United States, and liquid bulk cargoes consist of chemicals, lubricants, and compressed gases. Operations are conducted from nine fleet locations in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Texas.

Driver alert

As the Alaska project came together in early June 2018,  Carbon Express broadcast a message to the driver corps to see how many would like to make the trip.

“Twenty percent of our 72 drivers said they wanted to make the run,” Rush said. “Among those volunteering were local drivers. When they realized they needed a passport for the trip, several went and applied for one so they would be eligible if more Alaska loads come along.”

Of the 16 drivers chosen, 13 were company drivers and three were owner operators with truck driving experience ranging from one to 45 years. Two of the owner-operators drove as a team. McNamee was one of the company drivers.

The first two drilling fluid loads left in late June from a refinery near Houston, Texas. The remainder shipped from a refinery near Joliet, Illinois.

McNamee hauled one of the first loads from the Joliet refinery, but this wasn’t his first time hauling oilfield cargoes. He got his start in oilfield hauling in 2011 when he and seven truck driver friends from southern Illinois signed on to transport process water in North Dakota’s Bakken shale region.

“We were there through the winter and into the spring,” McNamee says. “It was brutally cold, with windchills in the -48 degrees F range. One winter was enough for me.

“I’ve been with Carbon Express since 2012, and I like tanks. I wish I could have started with tanks at the beginning of my truck driving career. At Carbon Express, I run primarily in the west from Indiana to California. Typically, I stay out a month at a time.”

Company tractors

For the Alaska run, McNamee had his company tractor, a 2019-model Volvo VNR daycab and a DOT406 trailer that carried 8,600-gallons of product. The tractor-trailer rig had a loaded weight of 77,900 pounds. McNamee’s rig achieved 6.2 miles per gallon loaded and 9 mpg empty. He said his truck pulled the mountain grades without difficulty.

While Carbon Express runs a mix of tractor makes (Volvo, Mack, Peterbilt, and Freightliner), specifications are similar. This includes proprietary engines in the 400- to 430-horsepower range, automated transmissions, liftable tag axles (Volvo’s Adaptive Loading System, for instance), and widebase single tires.

Tank trailers used for the Alaska runs included DOT406 and a few DOT407 stainless steel units. Some of the trailers also had lifting axles and all but two were on wide-base single tires.

“Our tractor-trailer rigs certainly stood out in Alaska,” Rush says. “Some of the trucks were pulled over at weigh stations in Alaska due to the lifting axles and super singles. The Alaska DOT approved the trucks because we were there during the summer.

“During one of the first of the trips to Alaska, one of our trucks returning home was pulled into the scale just south of Fairbanks because a tractor and trailer axle were up. The scale master advised our driver that lift axles on tractors were not allowed and asked him to put them down, which he did until he left Alaska. If we haul more loads to Alaska, we will be sure to address this issue. We have also advised the folks at Volvo about this issue.

“We also got questions about our choice of daycabs. Our drivers explained that we only run daycabs for driver safety and comfort. When our driver is on the road, he stays in a clean hotel. It is an additional operating cost, but the benefits outweigh the dollars. Everyone knows how hard it is today for a truck driver with a sleeper tractor to find a legal safe place to park for the night. Our drivers have Corporate Lodging Card and Amex cards that cover hotels across the United States and Canada.

“Once at the hotel, they can relax and get a better night’s sleep compared with being stuck in a sleeper for 10 hours. They can take better care of their health by using the workout facilities at many hotels. They can even get a free breakfast in the morning. In short, we believe our well-rested driver will be safer out on the road.”

Hotel choices

While it was somewhat harder to find hotels with truck parking during the Alaska runs, drivers were successful in locating acceptable accommodations. Hotels had to be booked in advance, though.

The route to Alaska ran through northwestern Canada and included the Alaska Highway, which was previously called the Alcan Highway. Construction began in the spring of 1942 and the highway was in operation before the end of that year. An incredible construction feat, it was named an International Historical Landmark in 1996.

Rush says he was amazed at the improvements that had been made to the two-lane highway since he last drove it several years ago. It’s also very busy in the summer with vacation traffic and tank trucks serving oilfield operations across the region.

Due to variations in hours of service across the region covered by the Carbon Express fleet, some trucks ran better than 700 miles a day. Drivers got an extra hour of driving when they went on Canada North hours of service, and Alaska hours of service allows 15 hours of driving.

All of the HOS changes were seamlessly handled by the Omnitracs on-board computers. The satellite tracking capability of the on-board computer also made it possible for Carbon Express to watch the Alaska run unfold for each of the tank transports.

Every driver needed a 34-hour restart on the way to Alaska. “It was interesting to see how each driver had to take a reset at a different interval, yet all of them arrived in Fairbanks on the same day,” Rush says.

Many miles

Out on the road, Carbon Express drivers covered many miles with wide open stretches of beautiful scenery. At that time of the summer the days were very long with almost 24 hours of daylight.

“We saw incredible sights, including an abundance of wildlife,” McNamee says. “We saw bison herds wandering along the side of the road. We saw bears, dall sheep, and caribou. Sometimes, the biggest challenge was avoiding tourists who wanted photos of the wildlife.”

Seven days after the start of the trip, the Carbon Express drivers pulled into the Alaska West Express terminal in Fairbanks. The cargoes were transferred to Alaska West trucks for delivery to the customer in Prudhoe Bay.

Rush was there to greet his drivers and reward them with a long weekend and a stay at a hotel with log cabins. For the trip home, Rush drove as far as Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, in one of the company trucks.

On his way home, McNamee was stopped at the Fairbanks weigh station over raised axles. Carbon Express’ equipment configuration also earned a Level 1 inspection at a Yukon, Canada checkpoint. The rig passed inspection with no violations, and that earned McNamee a $100 bonus that Carbon Express pays out for any perfect inspection score.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.