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Shell Oil To Pay Over $115 Million To Reduce Polluting Emissions From Its Houston Refinery

Shell’s Deer Park Refinery, Texas. Photo courtesy of Roy Luck.

Shell Oil Co. and its affiliated partners have agreed to resolve allegations against the refinery and chemical plant in Deer Park, Texas, just outside of Houston.

They are accused of improperly operating 12 steam-assisted flaring devices in a way that caused excess volatile organic compounds, including benzene and other hazardous pollutants to be emitted into the atmosphere, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

To understand things a little better, flare stacks are gas combustion devices used primarily to burn off flammable gases. These flare stacks are used largely in industrial facilities such as petroleum refineries, chemical plants, and natural gas processing plants. They are also commonly used within oil and gas production sites that have oil wells, gas wells, offshore oil and gas rigs, and landfills.

In this settlement, Shell and its partner Deer Park Refining LP, have agreed spend over $115 million in efforts to control air pollution from its industrial flares and other processes, as well as paying about $2.6 million in civil penalties as part of resolving alleged violations against the Clean Air Act.

Specifically, Shell Oil operates the refinery, which is owned by Deer Park Refining. Shell Chemical LP owns and operates the chemical plant.

Shell is expected to spend about $100 million on new technologies to reduce air pollution from the industrial flares. The EPA explains that, “Improper operation of an industrial flare can send hundreds of tons of hazardous air pollutants into the air.”

To get a better view of the scope of the Shell facilities, the EPA says that the refinery processes about 330,000 barrels per day of crude oil, which makes it the 11th largest refinery in the United States. It produces a variety of refined products, including gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel.

The chemical plant manufactures base chemicals that are sold to other chemical companies that turn them into thousands of consumer products, ranging from plastics to building materials.

In total, the chemical plant produces about 8,000 tons per day of petrochemical and chemical products, such as ethylene, propylene, butylene, isoprene, butadiene, benzene, toluene, xylene, phenol, acetone, and cumene.

Both the chemical plant and the refinery operate 24 hours-a-day and 365 days-a-year.

As part of the settlement, the Justice Department said that Shell will be required to take the following actions to improve flare operations:

  • minimize flaring by recovering and recycling waste gas, which can then be reused by Shell as a fuel or product.
  • comply with limitations on how much waste gas can be burned in a flare (flare caps).
  • install and operate instruments, and monitoring systems to ensure that gases that are sent to the flares are burned with 98 percent efficiency.

The EPA says that once fully implemented, the pollution controls required by the settlement are expected to reduce harmful air emissions of sulfur dioxide, VOCs, and other hazardous air pollutants by an estimated 4,550 tons or more per year.

These controls are also expected to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by about 260,000 tons per year, adds the EPA.

In addition to reducing pollution from flares, Shell is expected to significantly modify its wastewater treatment plant. The company is expected to implement three mitigation projects estimated to cost between $15 and $60 million. Shell plans to:

  • modify its wastewater treatment plant to reduce emissions of VOCs.
  • control VOC emissions from tanks by replacing two old tanks, repairing one tank, and engaging in a bi-weekly infrared-camera imaging program for 15 other tanks.
  • control emissions of hazardous air pollutants and VOCs at its benzene production units through new monitoring and repair practices.

When fully implemented, the EPA estimates that “these projects will reduce VOC emissions by at least 300 tons per year.”

Shell also plans to implement two supplemental environmental projects. Shell has agreed to spend $1 million on a system to monitor benzene levels at the fence-line of the refinery and chemical plant, which are in the vicinity of a nearby neighborhood and school. The company plans to make the data available to the public through a website.

Shell has also agreed to spend $200,000 on retrofit technology to reduce diesel emissions from government-owned vehicles which operate in the vicinity of Deer Park complex.

The EPA says, “These actions will cut emissions of pollutants that can cause significant harm to public health,” adding that, “Exposure to high concentrations of sulfur dioxide can affect breathing and aggravate existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease.”

The agency also explains that, “VOCs are a key component in the formation of smog or ground-level ozone, a pollutant that irritates the lungs, exacerbates diseases such as asthma and can increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses, such as a pneumonia and bronchitis.”

Also chronic exposure to benzene, which is a carcinogen, can cause numerous health problems, including leukemia and reproductive health issues in women, adds the EPA.

The proposed settlement has been filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The consent will be subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval.


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