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Diane Bailey’s Blog

Valero's Magic Box, balancing sludge v. stink of crude oil

Diane Bailey

Posted March 26, 2014

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valero meeting.jpgLast night I learned all about the magic box of Valero’s “operating envelope” at their Benicia (San Francisco Bay Area) refinery during their public meeting for the proposed Crude Oil Rail Terminal.  Valero staff described the proposal to a packed audience, speaking cheerfully about bringing two 50-tanker car trains of crude oil in and out of Benicia each day. The friendly façade crumbled a little during the lengthy explanation to concerned community residents about the type of crude oil that could be coming in those tanker trains, confirming that they may carry dirty tar sands and volatile Bakken crude oil.

Valero - Feedstock Profile (any crude can fit in the blend box) (2).png

This slide from Valero’s presentation shows the magic box that bounds the density of the crude oil – the sludge factor, and the sulfur levels – aka the stink factor – of the crude oil that the Valero Benicia refinery is capable of handling.  It turns out though that the refinery can take a lot of different kinds of crude oil outside the magic yellow box; these are the yellow triangles.  The yellow triangles outside the magic box include both Bakken and tar sands crude oil.  That is to say that they can get the world’s dirtiest and most dangerous crude oils into the magic box of the refinery operating envelope by mixing them.  That’s right, they can brew up an exceptionally hazardous cocktail of tar sands sludge mixed with volatile Bakken crude oil to get inside the magic box. 

So, Valero can take the sludgiest, highest stink crude oil and cut it with lighter oil.  Then, voila, they say there are no changes to the balance of sludge and stink in the crude oil refined.  Although this mix may look like the same old conventional crude oil according to Valero's magic box theory, the reality is that this kind of blend of extreme crude oils creates the greatest public health hazards. Why? It retains the toxic heavy metal contamination from sludgy crudes and that comes out as air pollution; It is much harder to process, which means even more air pollution; it is unstable, prone to volatilizing toxic hydrocarbons like benzene; and it is highly corrosive, putting the refinery and infrastructure at greater risk of accidents.

Will Valero come clean with a real analysis of the public health, safety and environmental risks of the project when the draft Environmental Impact Report comes out next month? Or will they hide these impacts in magic boxes?

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Michael BerndtsonMar 26 2014 07:00 AM

You should exchange notes with the Illinois office of NRDC. BP Whiting and its 400,000 bpd tar sands processing capable upgrade - just spilled something, that is not treated water, into Lake Michigan. My drinking water.

Back to the Bay Area. Even though the SF bay is salt water, it's potentially an important drinking water source, given the drought. Unless it's assumed the intakes for water treatment systems are put several miles out in the Pacific Ocean. I believe environmental capitalists and tech libertarians got it all figured out. So everything is not [unpleasantness].

There is one problem with ad hoc technical solutions over robust planning and preparation, it's always something. And then something else. For instance, dissolved hydrocarbons in salt water mess with reverse osmosis (RO) systems. RO coupled with nuke plants, robots and social media is the fallback technical solution for many in the tech crowd on water issues.

Michael BerndtsonMar 26 2014 01:19 PM

Not to comment twice on your post and I believe you're already familiar with this...East Bay MUD and others are doing a brackish delta water desalination pilot study near Pittsburg. Not so bad news, the intake for the treatment plant isn't, like, right next to Velaro and the other refineries. Not so good news, the rail lines run pretty close. So-so news, the outcome of the pilot study should be very interesting. And who knows, maybe real world conditions may occur during the study period. Data is good. Bad news, there may be less fresh water mixing in the delta, given the drought.

Sorry, I just a took a trip down memory lane while looking at google maps of the east bay. At least a 25 year old trip. Anyway, San Francisco is the home of URS and Bechtel, so there shouldn't be a problem with git'n it done. Massive civil engineering projects don't build themselves.

Keith BushMar 28 2014 06:12 AM

I belong to no organized group and have wrestled with the idea of supporting the project. Personally, after much thought, I think the project should not be allowed to move forward.

Reason being, the fact is that there are risks and accidents do happen. If a large accident were to occur it could potentially have enormous impacts on the average benicia resident. The fact is Crude is toxic and a known carcinogen and if spilled would certainly have health and environmental costs. Additionally, if a large accident did occur, the city of benicia's reputation of being a nice community to raise a family in would be tarnished and as a result property values would be negatively impacted. I understand that every job is important but 19 jobs are simply not worth the risk.

Call me jaded but i I have also had a tough time believing that bp holds the community's health in high regard. As far as I can tell the companies motto is "profit before safety" as evidenced by the accident in the gulf and most recently Lake Michigan. I have no reason to believe that the companies motto has changed.

Perhaps a larger question should be asked and that is - Is it not time to be grateful for what fossil fuel has contributed to our society but realize that if the best the industry can do is propose to refine heavier and heavier crude or go to war over the sweeter crude that it's time to look to alternatives.

In the end it's short sighted to allow the project to continue and if bp was truly a leader, its focus would shift from being simply an oil company to a innovative energy company.

Ed BaileyMar 30 2014 01:44 AM

Diane, your not an authority on crude oil nor of usual refinery practices. You're making a ton of assumptions here. Calling Bakken crude oil the most dangerous oil is hyperbole. Apparently your not aware that the API gravity of Eagle Ford crude oil is higher than that of Bakken crude, so you are wrong. The higher the API gravity rating the more the oil is like condensate. Do more fact checking next time because incorrect facts weaken your argument.

And you didn't say anything about what kind of oil, probably imported, Valero is receiving at it's Benicia refinery now via ship. It's extremely likely they are and have been receiving crude oils from overseas that are very similar to tar sands and Bakken crude. It just cost more, which is why Valero wants to rail it in from domestic sources. Did you and anybody else ask what types and from where they are importing the oil from now??

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