Three Exxon refineries top the list of U.S. polluters
Exxon Mobil’s U.S. oil refineries pump far more lung-damaging soot than similar-sized facilities operated by competitors, according to regulatory documents and a Reuters analysis of pollution test results.
The Texas-based company’s three largest refineries – two in Texas and one in Louisiana – are the top three small particle emitters in the country, according to analysis of the latest tests submitted to regulators by the 10 largest refineries in the country.
The three Exxon refineries together recorded average emissions of 80 pounds per hour, eight times the average rate of the other seven refineries in the top ten list, some of which are larger than Exxon’s plants, according to the analysis. . The main polluter, Exxon’s Baton Rouge refinery, produced an average of 138 pounds per hour. (See graphic)
The performance reflects the company’s insufficient spending to reduce emissions, said Wilma Subra, a Louisiana-based scientist who previously served on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Board.
“Exxon has all the resources in the world to dramatically reduce its pollution levels,” she said.
The company has taken heat for years for its environmental performance. This week, Exxon lost at least two seats on its board of directors to an activist hedge fund seeking to force the company to take climate change into account. Read more
Exxon (XOM.N) said in a statement it is trying to comply with environmental laws and has invested billions of dollars to reduce emissions over the past two decades.
Oil and gas pollution has a disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities, which are often located near industrial sites. Reuters interviewed nearly three dozen residents in predominantly black neighborhoods near Exxon’s Baton Rouge refinery. About a third said they had breathing problems or knew someone who had them.
Small particles are among the most harmful pollutants. Made up of particles 50 times smaller than a grain of sand, it can bind to other toxins, enter the bloodstream and damage the heart, lungs and nervous system. A small increase in long-term exposure to small particles also leads to a sharp increase in death rates from COVID-19, according to a recent Harvard University study.
“Particulate pollution is deadly, but you’re not going to see it written on anyone’s gravestone,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based watchdog group. DC.
The EPA requires factories to limit small particle emissions to 1 pound or less for every 1,000 pounds of coke burned in a refinery’s catalytic cracking units.
But Exxon’s Baton Rouge plant is the only major US refinery that does not have to meet this standard due to an EPA rule that exempts “cat crackers” that were built before 1976 and which have not been modified since.
Refineries must also meet national standards for particulate matter pollution. But those limits can vary widely between states – and between different facilities within states – depending on the stringency of state regulators and whether a refinery has agreed to stricter limits to settle lawsuits. And Louisiana regulators allow much higher pollution levels at Exxon’s Baton Rouge plant than at other state refineries.
“There is a surprising amount of inequality between states” in the application of pollution limits, said Philip Mattera, research director at Good Jobs First, a Washington-based watchdog group. “People don’t realize how much the EPA delegates responsibility for major environmental laws to state agencies.”
OLD POLLUTION CRUSHERS
Exxon’s two large oil refineries in Texas – at Beaumont and Baytown – are also among the top three polluters identified by Reuters. But Exxon’s 517,000 barrels per day Baton Rouge plant produces a lot more soot.
Small particle emissions from the plant peaked at 350 pounds per hour in an independent test in January 2020 by an engineering company Exxon hired to demonstrate regulatory compliance.
Emissions averaged 255 pounds per hour during the test. That exceeded a limit, imposed on the refinery by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), of 234 pounds per hour – one of the highest limits in the country, according to regulatory documents. Other similarly sized refineries in Louisiana and other states have soot emission limits closer to 50 pounds per hour.
The LDEQ declined to comment on the pollution limits it sets for the Exxon plant in Baton Rouge.
Exxon officials blamed the refinery’s high emissions on low water pressure in its 1970s wet gas scrubber, according to the company’s correspondence with the LDEQ. Exxon told the state it has since fixed the issue.
Maintaining these scrubbers, commonly used to control pollution, can reduce emissions, but require shutting down a cat cracker for several weeks, hurting profitability, according to Exxon disclosures to LDEQ. Entirely new systems can cost over a billion dollars.
Because the Baton Rouge refinery’s two catalytic crackers were built during World War II – among the first such units in the country – they are exempt from federal EPA standards.
‘GIVE US GOOD AIR’
The more than a century old Baton Rouge refinery borders neighborhoods with extremely high rates of childhood asthma.
Seabell Thomas, 77, whose home is separated from the refinery by Interstate 110, said his son’s asthma was so severe that he visited the emergency room regularly as a child. She has since campaigned to pressure Exxon to clean up.
“When I wake up each morning I have to face two demons: the pollution of the highway and the Exxon refinery,” she said. “As black people we ask, ‘God, how long can you allow this? Please give us some air to breathe.’”
In a group of census blocks that includes Thomas’ house, childhood asthma rates were more than double the state average, according to a 2019 report from the Louisiana Health Department. Emergency room visits for childhood asthma in the region have also more than doubled the rate statewide.
“I grew up thinking asthma was an African American disease because so many kids in the neighborhood had inhalers,” said Sonyja Renee Thomas, daughter of Seabell Thomas. “It wasn’t until later, as an adult, that I realized how much pollution was taken into account.”
EXXON RIVALS RUN MUCH CLEANER
The large refineries run by Exxon’s rivals are much better at controlling soot. Ironically, many of them use technology invented and licensed by Exxon, according to disclosures from Exxon and environmental regulators.
Industrial pollution experts say the differences in performance can be attributed to one or more of a number of factors: competitor’s equipment may be newer; maintenance schedules may be more frequent; and refining processes prior to wet gas scrubbing can also be optimized to reduce soot.
It all takes money. In many cases, prosecution is also necessary.
Companies such as BP plc (BP.L), Marathon Petroleum (MPC.N), Phillips 66 (PSX.N) and Valero Energy Corp (VLO.N) have made deals with the EPA in recent years to reduce emissions below federal standards to help resolve pollution disputes, regulatory disclosures show.
These more restrictive limits are set out in so-called consent decrees, which cover the operations of dozens of U.S. refineries and influence the allowable pollution levels set by states.
For example, the Marathon refinery in Garyville, Louisiana operates an Exxon scrubber that has undergone numerous upgrades since it was installed in 1979, company spokesperson Jamal Kheiry said. The refinery’s state-set permit limit is 0.6 pounds per 1,000 pounds of coke burned, well below the EPA’s limit of one pound. In its last test, Garyville’s small particle emissions were only 0.11 pounds. The factory is slightly larger than Exxon Baton Rouge.
“The low emissions figures reflect the strong emissions controls we have in place,” said Kheiry of Marathon.
Exxon’s three largest refineries are also operating under a consent decree, signed with the EPA in 2005 after the company was sued by the EPA and the Department of Justice for alleged Clean violations. Air Act. But the deal only includes a voluntary target for Exxon to limit soot emissions to half of the EPA standard, which it failed to do.
For residents around the Baton Rouge refinery, pushing for Exxon to reduce pollution can be difficult given its economic and political clout as Louisiana’s major employer.
Sidney Poray, 60, has lived near the refinery for almost 30 years and has worked with activist groups to monitor emissions from the refinery. But he’s not optimistic that their work will make a big difference.
“Of course, I care about the pollution,” Poray said. “But what am I going to do? We’re talking about Exxon.”
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.