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Made-in-USA shipbuilding finds an unlikely ally

The 820-foot Liberty Bay sits dry-docked in Philadelphia's Aker Shipyard. A massive supertanker destined for the West Coast, the ship is set to launch next week when it will undergo its final outfitting before being delivered to SeaRiver Maritime in April. It's taken more than 1,000 workers a year to build the Liberty Bay, and construction has already begun on her sister ship in the same yard.

The tanker Liberty Bay under construction at the Aker yard in Philadelphia.
Brad Quick | CNBC
The tanker Liberty Bay under construction at the Aker yard in Philadelphia.

And while it might not be surprising that the City of Brotherly Love is home to a thriving shipbuilding economy, the reason for the boom might be: domestic oil production.

Thanks to the century-old Jones Act, which requires all goods moved between U.S. ports to be carried by U.S.-flagged and U.S.-built vessels, shipbuilders across the country are working overtime to keep up with demand for tankers that can transport the bounty of newly drilled shale oil and gas now being produced in the United States.

33 million gallons per journey

When it launches, the Liberty Bay will be able to deliver 33 million gallons of oil from Alaska's North Slope to refineries on the West Coast in a single trip. SeaRiver Maritime, Exxon Mobil's marine affiliate, has commissioned the two ships. At a cost of $200 million each, the tankers represent a significant investment that will help boost Philadelphia's economy.

According to the Department of Transportation, 15 tankers are on order or under construction at shipyards across the country, with options for many more. It's the biggest boom the industry has seen in 20 years.

(Read more: T. Boone Pickens tells us where oil is headed)

When Aker finishes with the two ships for Exxon, it will begin construction on four more for another client, with the option to deliver another four after that. In all, the company has won orders for $1.1 billion, and has tripled in size since 2011.

And it's not just ship builders that are benefiting from the country's massive energy boom. Railroads and tank-car makers have also seen huge upticks in business. BNSF Railway, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, is investing $220 million to improve rail capacity in North Dakota—home of the massive Bakken oil and gas field.

Railroads get in on the action

The propeller of tanker Liberty Bay, which is under construction in Philadelphia's Aker Shipyard.
Brad Quick | CNBC
The propeller of tanker Liberty Bay, which is under construction in Philadelphia's Aker Shipyard.

Last week, crude shipments by domestic rail surpassed 600,000 barrels per day. Rail-car manufacturers are having a hard time keeping up with demand for new cars. The Railway Supply Institute, an industry group, expects the backorder on new rail cars to stretch into 2015.

Back at Aker, workers are pulling extra shifts to make sure the Liberty Bay is delivered on time. And with energy production in Texas and North Dakota at record highs, it looks like the ship builders in Philadelphia will be busy for quite a while.


— By CNBC's Brad Quick. Follow him on Twitter @bquick83

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