Converting crude oil into its various derivatives (gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc.) is no easy task. Refineries have some of the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions in all of industry, they operate continuously, and, with all of the volatile fuels passing through them, they have a history of dangerous fires and explosions.
Refineries are responsible for turning the various forms of crude oil extracted from underground reservoirs into usable petroleum products, from familiar energy-dense fuels such as gasoline and heating oil to waxes and lubricants. Most of these products are created through a process called fractional distillation, which separates hydrocarbons with different boiling points. The total amount of equipment necessary to refine the petroleum consumed every day is massive, leading to refineries that appear more like small cities. The United States has well over 100 refineries with a total capacity of nearly 18 million barrels per day, the highest in the world. The single largest refinery on Earth is in India, with a capacity of over 1 million barrels per day.
Refining oil requires an immense amount of energy. Refineries power their machinery and processes almost exclusively with oil and natural gas, contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. According to the U.S. EPA, carbon dioxide emissions from on-site energy consumption at refineries are responsible for upwards of 10 percent of all emissions from U.S. industry. Refineries also generate air pollution that can threaten nearby communities. EPA documents have noted that “the petroleum refining industry is far above average in its pollutant releases and transfers per facility” and these chemicals include “benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, cyclohexane, 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene and ethylbenzene,” which can be harmful to human health.
In addition to threats to human health caused by pollutants from refineries, the combination of flammable substances, numerous chemical reactions, and high temperatures at refineries leads invariably to accidents. In 2010, four employees were killed in a refinery fire in Anacortes, Washington, and in 2005 a refinery explosion in Texas City killed 15 workers and injured more than 100 others. These are just two of the more egregious recent accidents, and a full history would highlight myriad violations, accidents, and unfortunate deaths.