Rising fuel prices spur growth in theft-prevention, monitoring technology

Petroleum fleet managers look for ways to combat incidents of theft, hijackings

The Price of diesel fuel rose well above $4 a gallon in 2008, a significant increase over 2007. With predictions of even larger increases for refined fuels in the future, the value of bulk shipments are ballooning beyond what most transporters ever imagined.

For petroleum transport fleet owners, rising prices can mean more questions from customers about the accuracy of custody transfers, as well as uneasiness about theft. Concern about the security of petroleum shipments is growing.

Some incidents worth noting over the past year include one loaded tanker stolen from a terminal in Houston, Texas; an organized siphoning scheme uncovered in Georgia; and a tanker in Baltimore, Maryland, with 7,100 gallons of diesel fuel hijacked at gunpoint as the driver was re-fueling. That tanker later was found empty and abandoned southwest of Washington DC.

The problem is not unique to the United States. In Germany last year, three tankers were stolen from a terminal and later found empty. The loss in that incidence totaled 90,000 liters (23,775 gallons).

No industry organization or government agency tracks the amount of petroleum lost or unaccounted for annually, but one corporate executive estimates that, on average, two percent of all shipments never arrive at their assigned destination. There is no doubt that risk increases relative to rising prices. While circumstances haven't reached the point yet where bulk haulers in the petroleum industry are the equivalent of what armored car drivers are to banks, it is safe to assume that there is, and always will be, some element of theft-risk associated with hauling fuel.

Rising values of tank truck fuel shipments have led to more sophisticated and more accurate theft-detection systems to help fleet operators stay one step ahead of the crooks.

"Peace of mind is one thing fleet owners like," says Kevin Stump, Tank Truck Systems product manager for FMC Technologies in the United Kingdom. "As the price of oil rises, there seems to be more skittishness, whether it is stated or not, that an existing security plan may not be sufficient."

Peace of mind is appealing to Eric Pate, fleet manager for North Carolina-based Waccamaw Transport Inc, but theft is not top of mind. "As the price of product had increased, we've seen an increase in the number of customers questioning whether they received the full amount," he says. "If a customer says we shorted them a hundred gallons of diesel fuel, right now that's $400. If they want to withhold $400 from payment, that's a problem."

Waccamaw Transport uses a GPS (global positioning satellite) system to provide customers with a printout of the location of the loading terminal, the route the truck took, the location of the delivery, and then the location of the next stop to verify that no stops were made before or after that customer's delivery.

"We do that because if the customer has a problem, we want them to know their problem is with the terminal and not with us," says Pate.

Waccamaw runs five compartments in each of their 56 tank trailers and typically operates within a 150-mile radius of petroleum terminals, serving both urban and rural areas in the eastern Carolinas and Virginia.

Electronic seals

A new "sealed-parcel-delivery" system called MultiSeal is helping fleet owners gain peace of mind and resolve customer concerns. Developed by FMC Technologies, MultiSeal has been available in Europe for the past 10 years and is being more widely used as petroleum prices rise. The MultiSeal system controls volume deposited into a tank truck compartment and "seals" that compartment electronically. The electronic seal remains unbroken until delivery is made when the compartment is unsealed and completely emptied. This system ensures that the quantity delivered is the same as the quantity loaded.

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