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Planet Money's Oil Ends Its Journey In A Gas Tank


This week members of our Planet Money team have been players in the oil business. They purchased 100 barrels of crude from a man in a cow pasture in Kansas. They sent the oil to a refinery where it was turned into gasoline. And today they follow it to the end of its journey - a gas tank. Here are Robert Smith and Stacey Vanek Smith.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: We are looking for our gasoline. We know it's traveling on its way to Iowa. We know it's in a pipeline underground. Unfortunately for us, pipelines don't follow roads.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: They go under cornfields and rivers. So to find our pipeline, we have to try and spot these little yellow signs posted along the way.

R. SMITH: Wait; wait; wait; wait; wait; wait; wait; wait.

S. SMITH: Oh, I see it. I see it. Good eyes, Robert Smith.

R. SMITH: Well, look at that.

S. SMITH: Warning, petroleum pipeline. There's a tiny oil derrick on it.

R. SMITH: Somewhere under our feet is Planet Money's gasoline.

S. SMITH: Along with a whole bunch of other stuff.

R. SMITH: Yeah, there's this amazing trick you can do with pipelines. You can fill one section with gasoline, and then right behind it you can put airline fuel and behind that, diesel. And they all stay separate.

S. SMITH: These batches are scheduled like trains, and they all end up here at a tank farm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Larry Bose (ph) is a pumper, gauger with CHS, and he thinks he knows when Planet Money's batch will arrive.

LARRY BOSE: About 4 o'clock in the morning we're going to get a batch changed. And when it does I'm going to run right out here and open one valve to a tank and close the other valve.

R. SMITH: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. You're manually going to, like, turn a wheel?

BOSE: Mhm.

S. SMITH: Does it take a lot of, like, elbow grease to turn it?

BOSE: No, I think you could do it.

S. SMITH: Apparently it is very easy to turn this wheel.

R. SMITH: From here our gasoline will be delivered to one of the local filling stations like this Cenex.

S. SMITH: Oh, hey. Are you getting gas today?

TOM: I am.

S. SMITH: Tom is a math teacher in Council Bluffs. And to be honest at this point it is really hard to tell where exactly our gasoline is. But some of it could be going into Tom's gas tank.

R. SMITH: Do you know where this oil comes from?

TOM: Well, I guess my initial assumption would be Saudi Arabia.

R. SMITH: You don't think about it very much.

TOM: I prefer it be from the United States someplace, but no, I guess I don't. So...

S. SMITH: Actually this oil came from Kansas.

TOM: Oh, it did? Oh, OK.

S. SMITH: Yeah.

TOM: Came from Kansas - OK, well, that's great.

S. SMITH: Tom was not as excited as we were.

R. SMITH: No, but we felt like we had just witnessed a kind of miracle, that some plankton from millions of years ago can become crude oil and just wait there, wait underground for Planet Money to come along and pull it out.

S. SMITH: That the oil can be transformed in just a couple days from Kansas crude to driving your car in Iowa.

R. SMITH: And this process happens thousands of times a day all over the world. Oil moves markets. Oil shapes global politics.

S. SMITH: Next week we'll profile some of the hidden players in the oil business - the man who invented fracking and the traders in Chicago who help set the price of oil.

R. SMITH: But as of right now, Stacey, Planet Money is officially out of the oil business. It's a relief. Robert Smith...

S. SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News, Council Bluffs, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.