Old refineries incapable of manufacturing enough light hydrocarbons to electrify the world


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The zero-emission movement in the wealthy countries are experiencing a “dangerous delusion” of a global transition to “just electricity” that eliminates the use of the three fossil fuels of crude oil, natural gas, and coal, that made society achieve so much in a few centuries. As old refineries accelerate their closure rates in the coming years, new Asia refineries are coming to the rescue! Does Asia’s rescue represent the good news or the bad news?

The future does not bode well as 20 percent of the 700 worldwide aging refineries are projected to close in the next 5 years that will result in less manufacturing with the loss of 140 sites to meet the ever growing demands of ships, jets, and the derivatives needed for all the products demanded by society. With less manufacturing in wealthy countries in the days ahead, further shortages and inflation of both fuels and products in perpetuity are guaranteed.

As old refinery closures accelerate, it’s becoming obvious that wind turbines, solar panels, and EV’s may face challenging growth as they are 100 percent made with those limited light end hydrocarbons that will diminish with refinery closures. But wait, Asia is coming to the rescue!

Asia is the region with the greatest number of future petroleum refineries. As of 2021, there were 88 new facilities in planning or under construction in Asia. The amount of oil fed through refineries in Asia has significantly increased in the past three decades as demand for petroleum products surged in developing countries such as China and India, both with significant less stringent environmental regulations than those in America. China is on track to succeed the United States as the country with the greatest oil refinery throughput.

These new Asian refineries, just like the mining in China, Africa, and Brazil for the exotic minerals and metals required for wealthy countries to achieve their net-zero emission goals, will be constructed and maintained on some of the LEAST environmentally controlled landscapes on this planet.

A subject for another time: Is the rescue by Asia’s new refining manufacturing capabilities exposing national security issues for America?

Today, oil refineries around the world are designed for specific crude oil feed-stocks available to those sites, and then manufacture a 42-gallon barrel of oil into light and heavy hydrocarbon products available from that feed-stock to support the world’s 8 billion on this planet are dependent on the 50,000 jets moving people and products, and more than 50,000 merchant ships for global trade flows, and the military’s of each country, and space programs that are based on the heavy hydrocarbons for the various fuels manufactured from crude oil. In addition, those light hydrocarbons are primarily used for making the more than 6,000 products now in society.

With enough money and technology, new refinery facilities could be designed to extract light hydrocarbons like ethylene from natural gas, and transportation fuels can be manufactured from coal, but both processes come with new equipment and produce excessive emissions.

No new refinery has been built in America since 1977, 46 years ago, so the need for new American refinery facilities to treat natural gas and/or coal may be a pipe dream to obtain environmental and construction permits for a new fossil fuel manufacturing site, when America is motivated to rid itself of both natural gas and coal, along with crude oil.

Today, about 90 percent of that 42-gallon barrel of crude oil is manufactured into the heavy hydrocarbon products like automotive gasoline’s, jet fuels, distillate fuel oils, diesel fuels, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), and those “other products” which comprise the other 10 percent of a barrel of crude oil that contains light hydrocarbons, usually referred to as “oil derivatives” that are manufactured from crude oil.

Today, the big push is to reduce emissions, and the target is a future with net zero emissions. Here’s a very short scope of net zero (partial listing):

  1. Electrify all cars, trucks, and train use.

  2. Electrify most heat uses, especially gas heat.

  3. Rebuild the grid so wind and solar generated electricity with battery storage are the primary electricity power source.

To achieve a world of only those light ends to make all the products now in society that supports lifestyles and all the infrastructures, there are thoughts among the green community that we can convert the existing old refineries to produce nothing but derivatives, and/or replace the existing refineries with derivative refineries, or just manufacturing those light ends. That may be another pipe dream as each refinery is designed for specific crude oil feed-stocks available to those sites, and conversions may be technically too expensive and not even permitted.

From the proverb: You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip

  • A corn cob weighs in at about around 1 to 1.5 pounds per mature ear of corn.  Fresh cut cobs yield around 6-7 ounces of corn. We can’t squeeze more kernels from a cob.

  • A 42-gallon barrel of oil contains about 90 percent of heavy hydrocarbons for various fuels, and about 10 percent of light hydrocarbons that are the basis of thousands of products made from those oil derivatives by -products. We can’t squeeze more light end hydrocarbons from a barrel of oil.

Such a switch of those old refineries to derivative refineries is a pipe-dream or an environmental and emissions disaster as 90 percent of that 42-gallon barrel of crude oil would need to be disposed of if not marketable as manufactured products like liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), automotive gasoline’s, jet fuels, distillate fuel oils, diesel fuels.

From the proverb “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” tells us that:

    1. you can’t rid America of only the “fuels” manufactured from fossil fuels and

    2. continue to enjoy just the by-products of those light ends hydrocarbons that are manufactured from the same crude oil.

We may get to zero emissions, like we had in the pre-fossil fuel days in the 1800’s, but once we rid America of those fuels that generate emissions, manufactured at old refineries, we also rid America of the light ends that are the basis of the 6,000 products that did not exist before the 1900’s.

Just a few hundred years ago when the world’s population was around just one billion, before oil, the world was unspoiled, decarbonized, and dominated by mother nature and the wild animal kingdom. In the 1800’s there was no coal fired power plants, nor natural gas power plants, and the Beverly Hillbillies had not yet discovered oil. There were fewer humans competing with the animals due to humanity’s limited ability to survive what mother nature provided. Before oil, life was hard and dirty, with many weather and disease related deaths.

The ruling class, powerful elite, and the media lack some energy literacy which may be the reasons they avoid conversations about the ugly side of “green” mandates and subsidies. Before anyone in Washington decides to procure wind turbines, solar panels, or an EV, they should read the Pulitzer Prize nominated book that I co-authored, “Clean Energy Exploitations”,  and decide for themselves if they wish to financially support the humanity atrocities and environmental degradation among folks in developing countries with yellow, brown, and black skin, so that the wealthy countries can go green.

Thus, without planned replacements in America for what is now manufactured from fossil fuels, we may get to the net-zero emissions society but with heavy reliance on Asia to achieve those lofty goals.

  • Ronald Stein

    Ronald Stein is an engineer, senior policy advisor on energy literacy for CFACT, and co-author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated book “Clean Energy Exploitations.”

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