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Railroads Are on a Fast Track, Thanks to Bakken Oil

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Among the biggest beneficiaries of the demand for transport of crude oil out of North Dakota's Bakken shale region are the owners of the two main rail links to the region, Canadian Pacific Railway (CP - Get Report) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B - Get Report).

The companies are exploiting the lack of pipeline capacity needed to ship the region's rapidly growing production of crude to refineries thousands of miles away and that demand is serving to more than offset expected weakness from their shipment of agricultural products due to the drought and lower coal shipments as utilities shift to burning the cheaper natural gas.

Oil production from the 200,000-square-mile Bakken basin, which extends into Montana and southern Canada, is skyrocketing, thanks in part to the use of hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking, a process where a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is blasted deep underground to release oil and natural gas trapped within shale rock.

North Dakota recently became the second-largest oil-producing state in the nation, passing Alaska, and in May it pumped an average of 639,000 barrels per day, a 75% increase from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

My recent visit to the Bakken underscored the importance of rail traffic to the region, as this projected long-term boom, still in its infancy, is in dire need of infrastructure to support it.

That means material for the build-out of roads, housing, pipelines and oil-storage facilities has to be shipped in, in addition to the pipes, machinery, chemicals and sand used in the hydro-fracking drilling process creating high demand for inbound rail traffic, while oil is being shipped out over the same rail network.

Because of the cost and time it now takes to get Bakken crude to the price point for the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) at Cushing, Okla., or to refiners in the Midwest or Gulf Coast, Bakken oil now sells at a discount of $5 to $25 per barrel to the benchmark WTI, a significant loss of potential income to producers.
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