Why so close? Chemical plants and oil refineries, and water

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Chemicals, oil, and water are linked eternally in a faustian bargain. In order to produce most chemicals, and all petroleum products, it is necessary to have access to immense quantities of water. Thus, the infrastructure for these industries is found in the low-lying areas alongside of rivers, and within the inlets and bays along the coastline of the oceans. When the inevitable floods happen, the potential for releases of chemicals and oil, and even explosions as seen in Crosby Texas this week can and will occur.


Why is there this dependence on huge quantities of water? In order to make many chemical reactions occur, it is necessary to provide heat. That heat normally comes in the form of steam. Steam is also used to enable separations of chemicals through distillation. The tall columns seen in chemical plants and refineries are usually distillation towers, where products and wastes are drawn off at various levels in the towers. These products must then be condensed, and they are condensed in heat exchangers with water being used to cause the vapors to condense. The chemicals and the water don’t mix in these condensers, since they are found on opposite sides of the heat exchangers. But immense quantities of water are used in heat exchangers, and the water is thus warmed, reducing its effectiveness in condensing and cooling chemicals.


The water used in heat exchangers and condensers may only be used once. This is single-use water and it is necessary to have a large volume of water nearby in order to release the warmed water without adverse ecological impact. If the water is reused, then it is necessary to cool the water back down in order to use it again. This is done in cooling towers, and you normally will see the plumes of water vapor coming up from these large structures, where water is cooled through evaporation as it drips on down through the wooden framework of a cooling tower. Cooling towers increase the concentration of salts in the water, since a portion of the water is lost to evaporation and may have many cycles through the cooling tower before being discarded to a body of water.


Since it takes lots of energy to move large quantities of water, and lots of money to run long lengths of piping, most chemical plants are found just adjacent to the water. They are sited so that they are above the normal flooding levels, but when unprecedented flooding happens like with Harvey, they are supremely vulnerable to damage from water. In my career in the chemical industry, I worked at two plants (in Tennessee and in West Virginia) that were situated along rivers. The plant in Tennessee did have problems long after I left when flooding from the Mississippi caused backwater flooding that buried part of the plant, which was situated on a smaller feeder stream. Fortunately, it didn’t cause the release of chemicals, and was not a large problem, but it highlights how close proximity to water comes with its own set of risks.


I have been to plants in Texas that were totally inundated from the floods this week. One along the end of the Houston Ship channel, that immense concentration of oil and chemical plants along Texas 225. The other was in Beaumont, situated right next to the marshlands leading to the Gulf of Mexico. The facilities at these plants are designed to be safe and to be able to be shut down without causing chemical releases. But. There are limits to what you can do and still be safe. When you have feet of floodwaters covering a site, then the power of the water can do things that cannot be controlled. Water can erode pipe supports, and the dangling piping will bend and break, releasing the contents of the lines. Floodwaters can shove vehicles and boats into pumps and piping, causing them to break. Even in the normal process of shutting down facilities, excess venting and flaring of flammable and toxic compounds can happen, which can cause irritation and concern among the neighbors of these facilities.


Just as there is a faustian bargain between these facilities and water, there is another relationship that comes into play. That is the relationship between the workers and their families, and their proximity to the plant. Very often the workers for these facilities are found in the neighborhoods surrounding the plants. Entire generations of workers have grown up nearly in the shadow of the towers of refineries and chemical plants. This is especially true in the region around the Houston Ship Channel. The towns of La Porte, Pasadena, Deer Park, and Baytown have a symbiotic relationship with their industrial behemoths. Only a single road separates the residential areas from the properties of the oil and chemical companies. Quite literally, the companies and the towns are all in the same boat at times like now.


The plant that had the explosions this week was a different type of chemical plant. This plant was not adjacent to a large body of water. What it manufactured was a chemical that is essential in the manufacture of plastics, but by its own nature, it was extremely unstable. In my chemical plant in West Virginia, we also manufactured a similar material. These materials are known as polymerization initiators, and they make it possible for chemicals like ethylene (two carbons bound by double bonds) to react with each other, and form long chains that we know as plastics (polyethylene). The materials we produced in West Virginia also have to be kept refrigerated or they will grow unstable and catch fire. Part of the lore of the plant involved the time when the manufacturing line for this material had a problem, and the temperature rose to the point where the chemical decomposed and ignited. That fire was remembered long after everyone who worked during the fire had left the plant. What made the situation in Texas worse, was that the organic peroxides they made are not only flammable but are explosive when they decompose.


Part of the manufacturing process for chemical plants involves process hazards reviews. In these reviews, the participants go through a systematic review of the inherent hazards of the process and facilities, and determine if there were adequate safeguards to prevent incidents and injuries. Sometimes a significant hazard is discovered, one that had not been previously considered, and then the management of the plant faces the task of getting the fix done to remove the hazard. Since it takes time to implement new facilities (and get the authorization to spend the money to build facilities), normally there are administrative controls that are put in place to temporarily mitigate the risks. But even though I participated in many process hazards reviews in my career, I do not remember ever having considered the case of having my plant submerged in multiple feet of floodwater, and having no way to get anything working for days at a time. I imagine that the chemical and refining industries will have to go through substantial work trying to come up with new safeguards that will prevent releases and explosions such as are being seen in Texas now.


Leroy Added Sep 1, 2017 - 12:39pm
Thanks for your informative and first-hand experienced article.
What are the alternatives to locating chemical plants and refineries near the water?
Lady Sekhmetnakt Added Sep 1, 2017 - 6:25pm
Wouldn't placement of chemical plants inland near a river solve the problem? Obviously rivers flood also, but there are rivers away from hurricane flood zones which experience far less flooding than the coastal areas. 
Even A Broken Clock Added Sep 1, 2017 - 7:27pm
Leroy and Jennifer - First, there are not many alternatives to having plants near a significant source of water. Water is the most efficient heat transfer medium available, so as long as we are using large-scale chemical processing (and oil refining), water is a given. Water access is also important for barge deliveries of raw materials and shipments of products.
Now the issue is whether you can locate further away from flood-prone areas. Yes, I worked at a plant where the chance of flooding is nearly nil unless there was a dam failure upstream. But, we didn't plan for 50" of rain in 4 days. I think even my inland river location would have had severe problems had we been exposed to that much water. It is the coastal locations that are more prone to that amount of precipitation since they are adjacent to the sea which vaporizes and deposits on the ground as rain.
One effect of the natural gas fracking revolution has been that there is now a significant source of natural gas liquids inland, away from the coasts. Ethane, propane and butane are components of the natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales, and the Ohio / Pennsylvania / West Virginia area is being viewed as a candidate for large scale petrochemical facilities. The propensity of the Gulf to flood catastrophically may help to move some of the future investment back upstream.
Jeffry Gilbert Added Sep 1, 2017 - 10:23pm
Management's calculus is not to build for an emergency because that's what insurance is for.
Dino Manalis Added Sep 2, 2017 - 9:27am
We need more refineries in other regions, like the West Coast and the Midwest.
Bill Kamps Added Sep 2, 2017 - 9:30am
Jenifer, the size of the ships that load and unload these plants, usually means not just close to water, but close to the ocean.  The Exxon on plant at Baytown does over 500K barrels a day.  So that  is 500K in, and 500K out in various forms.  There are quite a few other plants in the area as well.
Yes it could be on the Mississppi, and some are in Louisiana.  But of course it floods as well, maybe more often than the Gulf coast.
While I have lived in Houston more than 30 years, this is the first time to my knowledge that Baytown was closed.  Maybe during Ike, but we didnt get that  much rain then, so I suspect not.
Its tough to build things for once in a lifetime floods, that would be way too expensive.
Bill H. Added Sep 2, 2017 - 10:54am
Dino - There are over 22 refineries in California. All of the gasoline used in California is refined in California. Big Oil is ultra-greedy, so they will use the Texas disaster to profiteer all over the country (and probably many parts of the world) as they always do, even though the loss of refineries in Texas has no effect on the availability of gasoline in California.
Riley Brown Added Sep 2, 2017 - 11:54am
Jennifer, most refineries are also near ports because that makes it cheap to transport the raw materials and products. 
Ports tend to be near sea-level.
Riley Brown Added Sep 2, 2017 - 12:02pm
Bill,  when California started requiring their gasoline to be different from all the gasoline in other states they gave Calif refineries a monopoly on the fuel we use so they could recoup their investment for re-configuring their refineries to make the special blends. 
That monopoly no longer exists but no other states have refineries that are willing to reconfigure so they can compete in Calif's market because they can't win.  When the supply is not disrupted local refineries can make it as cheap as anyone, and they don't have far to ship it.  
Calif's prices for gas should stay the same during this crisis in Huston because none of their fuel comes from Huston refineries, and if Huston can't refine, less crude is used, and that could even drive Calif's prices down.
Of course that won't happen, oil companies use any excuse to drive prices up, even excuses that defy economical sense.
Bill Kamps Added Sep 2, 2017 - 1:13pm
Whether it is the oil companies or speculators, it is always difficult to tell who is controlling the price at the pump.  Gasoline is traded on the commodity market, and that generally controls the price. 
By the way, there are some 30 different blends of gas for different areas of the country.  Some of this is mandated by the states like Calif, and some of it is mandated by Congress. 
However, what often happens is when there are supply disruptions, the rules get relaxed, and then gas can be shipped  to other places making it a more national market.  Mid last week about 30% of the US refinery capacity was off line, so it makes sense that the price would rise some.
Oh yea, and it is Houston, not Huston :)
Even A Broken Clock Added Sep 2, 2017 - 2:45pm
Dino, your comment on needing more refineries in different locations is valid, but the problem is that very few locations have open arms for an industry that is a known polluter. That's true whether it is chemicals or oil. I remember last year on a train ride across the northern US, I saw an oil refinery in North Dakota. Taking advantage of the new supply there, but logistically they have a tough time distributing their product, since there is not a lot of local demand there.
Refineries inland tend to be smaller in scale as compared to the giants along the coasts that do handle tanker loads of crude.
BTW, good comments on California quirks, and supply disruption effects. The disruption should be especially felt in the northeast, since the Colonial pipeline goes directly from Houston to the northeast. There are multiple refineries in the northeast, but not enough to handle the entire demand. Thus the need for the pipeline supply to keep things flowing.
Katharine Otto Added Sep 2, 2017 - 3:43pm
Thanks for the interesting and informative article. Your explanation about how the cooling towers work made me wonder if the water that is ultimately released contains a higher concentration of salts.   Of course this would affect the ecological balance of the body into which it is released.
Also, all released water has higher temperatures than the original body of water, which would also affect the ecological balance.
You don't mention nuclear power plants, but I know they use lots of water for cooling, too.  I understand one-third evaporates, with the remaining two-thirds released back into the uptake river.  From what you say, it sounds like that water would contain a higher concentration of salts and higher temperatures.  This is a significant concern here in Georgia, where the Plant Vogtle site already has two nuclear reactors and a third under construction.  There is already a water shortage around Atlanta, yet people don't see the connection between this project and the water shortages in three states supplied by Lake Lanier.
It bothers me that the propaganda for nuclear power uses the argument that this is a non-carbon form of energy, so somehow preferable to other types of power plants.  Water use is a major consideration, but "climate science" seems to ignore that component.
Riley Brown Added Sep 3, 2017 - 11:15am
Bill, California has created their own blend, steadfastly refused to bend the rules even when they had refineries out of service, and I'd say they deserve the high prices they have inflicted on themselves.
Riley Brown Added Sep 3, 2017 - 11:26am
Katherine, cooling towers release heat taken from other places, into the air.  There are air cooled towers but they are not usually used for large equipment, where refineries are concerned it's all evaporation cooling towers that evaporate water to remove heat.  That is the alternative to conductive cooling using heat exchanges, which is what refineries near large bodies of of water like the ocean do.  The heat exchanges are simplistically a very long pipe that has the plant's hot water running through it, and is running though much colder ocean water.  Naturally the colder ocean water cools the pipe and the pipe warms the ocean.  Since the ocean is huge all they have to do to increase the cooling is increase the volume.  They are not allowed to return water to the ocean that is more than 10 degrees warmer than it was before it was used in their process.
None of these cooling processes pass contaminants from their process into the surrounding air or water, however the potential for contamination from other processes in refineries and nuclear reactors still exists.
You can worry about a lot of things, but generally the cooling processes, especially when they use ocean or river water, is nothing to worry about.
Bill H. Added Sep 3, 2017 - 12:04pm
I agree, but other states should not have to endure increased prices if the gasoline they are using is not produced from the affected Texas refineries. This is price gouging at it's best. I remember well the so-called "gas crisis" of the early '70s where gas prices skyrocketed and the oil companies were scrambling to find locations to secretly store all of the excess gas they were producing so that they could not only control the availability, but reap higher prices on the stored commodity.
Saint George Added Sep 3, 2017 - 5:53pm
The main reason chemical plants are not located inland near rivers is that most of that land is either owned privately, or is in "line-of-sight" of privately owned property. Property owners almost always reject locating a chemical plant in line-of-sight of their own property by means of litigation (or threat thereof) that makes use of the NIMBY argument: NIMBY = Not In My Back Yard.
Riley Brown Added Sep 4, 2017 - 12:16pm
Bill H, in the worst of the 70's oil crisis the oil companies were claiming there was a shortage at the same time as full oil tankers were having to anchor off shore because there was no on shore room for their cargo.  It was all a fabricated lie designed to raise prices.
Riley Brown Added Sep 4, 2017 - 12:18pm
Saint George, so you think coastal property that borders the ocean is less dear than river front property?
I think the permitting obstacles are not any worse and neither is the public outcry.  Both are insurmountable obstacles at this time.
Even A Broken Clock Added Sep 4, 2017 - 7:41pm
St. George - though I disagree with you on my other post on education, I agree with you on the NIMBY phenomenon. That is why new facilities are being proposed on existing brownfield locations where there is less objection to citing large facilities of this type. That's why Shell has received approval for a large ethane cracker facility (to create ethylene) up along the Ohio river just east of Pittsburgh. Other facilities have been proposed - in our Kanawha valley around Charleston we are looking at a methanol plant which will consist of a facility removed from Brazil and relocated to an existing chemical plant site.
Where NIMBY is particularly strong with the new natural gas infrastructure involves natural gas pipelines. Since those involve private companies given eminent domain authority, they are drawing intense opposition, and Riley, your point on the insurmountable obstacles may be proven correct. I hope not since there are significant environmental improvement opportunities for replacing coal with natural gas, and significant geopolitical advantages for exporting natural gas to Europe through LNG and reducing Europe's need for natural gas from Russia.
Nothing is ever easy and everything is connected.
Riley Brown Added Sep 5, 2017 - 10:46pm
Broken Clock, there a few things that no one wants in their back yard, NIMBA, nuclear reactors, dump sites, and refineries.  We all want the products, but no one wants to be close to one.
Of the 3 I'd take a refinery any day.  They generally don't blow up or melt down and contaminate the air, water or land nearby.  About the worst they do is catch fire and maybe evacuate you for a day or so, not much different than a brush fire.  In trade they lower prices near you and employ some of your neighbors.  Not a bad deal from my point of view.  Oh they can also stink a lot depending on what they produce, come to think of it, I do think I'd rather not live downwind of one.
Even A Broken Clock Added Sep 6, 2017 - 4:02pm
Over the course of my career at chemical plants, the amount of stench coming out of the plant decreased exponentially over the decades. Still, incidents happened where chemicals were released, and when one of the chemicals is trimethylamine, the stench does not happen in the vicinity of the plant. Since the release happened at the higher elevations of the plant, and since trimethylamine smells like rotten fish at the parts per billion level, the smell would drift 5-10 miles away before it settled down where people could smell it - and complain.
Refineries do smell, though. I can smell aromatics and some esters whenever I drive past a refinery about 50 miles from where I live. You gain an educated nose when you work in a chemical plant.
Dolphins With Mohawks Added Sep 10, 2017 - 7:48am
Very educational to read both your post and the comments.  I see the same thing in Calif, many plants along the bays and some on coast.