A View From the Cheap Seats

August 28, 2007

The Straight Poop on BP’s Air Toxics

Filed under: BP,Environment,National,State — trzupek @ 10:05 pm

Today, the Trib gave us a remarkable story, as part of their continuing crusade to close midwest oil reineries, entitled: “BP gets break on soot limits”

Reading this story, I was reminded of the time that my daughter, who was all of 1 year old at the time, figured out how to remove her own diaper and discovered the smelly treasures that lay within. My (ex)wife and I stared, open-mouth at the result: brown, stinking streaks covering every inch of my daughter’s crib, the walls and her body, as Sara giggled with glee.

And the question that leapt to mind at that moment was exactly the same as the one that formed when I read this latest bit of Hawthoganda: when there’s that much crap to clean up, where do you begin?

Let’s start breaking it down:

Toxics – Context

For many, the most troubling part of this article is the statement that the company released more than 574,000 pounds of toxic chemicals in 2005. Sounds like a big number, doesn’t it? Let’s put that number in a little bit of context, by asking a few pertinent questions:

A) Is this amount unusual for a refinery?

No. It’s entirely typical. There is nothing unusual, or “special” about this number in terms of refineries. Further, though they are the largest of the three remaining Chicago area refineries, BP emits the lowest amount of toxics of the three, according to USEPA’s latest inventory of Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) emissions.

B) Is BP a big toxic emitter in Lake County, Indiana, compared to other industries?

They are number 3, accounting for approximately 9% of the over 6 million pounds per year of HAPs currently emitted by industrial sources in Lake County, Indiana.

C) How about industries in the Chicago area, as a whole?

If we start in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and we work our way down to Porter County, Indiana, including the 6 county metropolitan Chicago area, we roughly define what we may call “greater Chicagoland”. In this region, we’ll find over 54 million pounds per year of HAPs emissions associated with industry. Thus BP’s contribution to industrial HAP emissions in the region is about 1%.

D) And if we look at everyone, not just industry, how does that look?

If we include ALL sources of HAP emissions in the region, we’re up over 210 million pounds per year. So, on a regional basis, BP accounts for about 0.27% of total HAP emissions. The biggest single source of HAPs, region-wide, are mobile sources (cars, trucks, etc.) which account for about 74 million pounds per year, according to USEPA’s last HAP emissions inventory.

We can argue whether or not 0.27% is significant enough to worry about, but shouldn’t we have that discussion with some sort of context? As written, with only that seemingly “huge” number staring you in the face, it sounds like BP is poisoning the Midwest. In fact, the plant is just one piece of a picture that is much, much larger. Shouldn’t readers know that?

It is easy to cherry-pick any one particular project and make it seem like the end of the world. Northwest Crematory in DuPage County is down for 6.7 million pounds of HAPs per year in the inventory. Koppers Industry in Cicero accounts for 1.7 million pounds per year. There is nothing difficult about picking out a plant and making them look bad. That’s not journalism, that’s propaganda.

Toxics – Controls

One would assume, based on this article, that BP is arrogantly refusing to do anything to control its toxics emissions. Not so. The vast majority of its toxics come from two types of sources at this (or any) refinery: combustion sources and storage tanks. Both types of sources are controlled. Indeed, they must be controlled, in order to meet permit limits and federal standards for oil refineries.

Combustion sources are required to burn their fuel as completely as possible, for it’s incomplete combustion that creates excess amounts of toxics. All refineries burn their fuel as completely as possible, simply because it’s good economic sense to do so, and you’ll find few industries that watch their operational costs more than petrochem.

But, even if one does burn fuel as completely and cleanly as possible, EPA assumes that there will be trace amounts of toxic compounds remaining. When you report your emissions, you are required to calculate (not measure) these assumed emissions, using standard EPA emission factors. On that basis, everyone emits toxics. There are factors for mercury, lead, ammonia and benzene associate with the burning of natural gas. So, using Hawthorne’s logic, your household furnace and water heater are also sources of toxic emissions. Not much, but the Trib carefully avoids any mention of actual amounts of these compounds, so why should I mention them?

The large toxic numbers calculated for BP’s combustion process are not a reflection of bad controls, they are a reflection of just how much gas a refinery – any refinery – burns. Apply the same arithmetic to any large combustion source, be it a power plant, ethanol plant, refinery, or anything else, and you’ll get big numbers. That’s a fact of life.

On to storage tanks. You will not be surprised to learn that BP operates a bunch of large storage tanks. If you’ve ever driven past the refinery, you may have noticed the tank farm. These tanks store the products that the refinery makes. Some of these products, like gasoline, contain HAPs. Benzene, toluene and xylene (all of which are HAPs) are a part of gasoline, and always have been.

When regulating storage tanks, EPA’s objective is to ensure that as little vapor escapes as possible. The best technology to do this is the floating roof storage tank. The roofs on these tanks float on the liquid surface below, in order to keep vapor formation to a minimum. The edges of the roofs are fitted with seals, so that vapor can’t get out that way. BP operates these types of tanks, which are considered best controls in the industry.

Still, something is going to escape, for no seal is perfect. EPA requires refineries to maintain these seals in good condition, which BP does. Yet, there is a computer program that calculates (again, not actually measures) emissions from storage tanks, even when they are properly controlled. Emissions are minimal, on a “per gallon” basis, but a refinery processes a lot of gallons. Therefore, when one runs the program, one calculates a whole bunch of emissions. Those emissions may or may not exist in real life. But it doesn’t matter, with regard to the central question: does BP control its toxics? Of course the company does. And they do so using the technology specified by EPA.

We must stop here for today. There is more to say about “soot”, but one can only clean up so much crap at a time, so we’ll have to save that piece for part 2, tomorrow.

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