© Reuters. Refineries near the Houston Ship Channel can be seen in Houston
By Laura Sanicola and Erwin Seba
NEW YORK / HOUSTON (Reuters) – The largest U.S. oil refineries released tons of air pollutants into the skies over Texas this week when one environmental crisis sparked another, according to the state.
Refineries and petrochemical plants along the US Gulf Coast tried to shut down production when an arctic air mass spread into a region unused to cold temperatures.
The extreme cold, which killed at least two dozen people in Texas and provided more than 4 million people with electricity at its peak, also hit power generation and reduced supplies needed to operate the plants.
Downtime caused the refineries to flare up or burn and release gases to prevent damage to their processing units. This flicker darkened the sky in east Texas with smoke visible for miles.
"These emissions can overshadow conventional refineries by orders of magnitude," said Jane Williams (NYSE :), chair of the Sierra Club's National Clean Air Team.
She said US regulators would have to change policies that would allow "these massive emissions to be caused with impunity".
The five largest refineries emitted nearly 337,000 pounds of pollutants, including benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide, according to preliminary data provided by the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ).
Valero Energy (NYSE 🙂 announced in a report to TCEQ that it had released £ 78,000 from its Port Arthur refinery in a 24-hour period as of February 15, citing the freezing cold and utility interruptions.
The 118,100 pound emissions from the Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, between February 15 and 18 were more than three times the emissions reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the full year 2019.
Marathon Petroleum's (NYSE 🙂 Galveston Bay refinery released 14,255 pounds in less than five hours on Feb.15, which is about 10% of total releases above allowable levels in 2019.
Exxon Mobil (NYSE 🙂 said its Baytown Olefins plant emitted nearly one tonne of benzene and 68,000 tons of carbon monoxide, citing in its disclosure the cessation of "multiple process units and the safe use of the flare system".
Exxon blamed the closure of two Texas refineries for the icy weather and loss of natural gas supplies. A spokesman said its petrochemical plants in Texas and Louisiana had delivered 560 megawatts to local communities, providing electricity to around 300,000 homes.
Valero had no immediate comment. Motiva and Marathon did not respond to requests for comment.
The final figures on pollution releases are due to be presented to the state in two weeks.
"NO SAFE AMOUNT"
The flaring lasted all week as the refineries kept the facilities out of operation.
"We had six or seven torches at a time," said Hilton Kelly, who lives in Port Arthur, where Motiva, Valero and Total SE operate refineries, said Friday. "It still happens."
Sharon Wilson, a researcher with Earthworks advocacy group, said the spills were alarming, partly because "there is no safe amount of benzene for human exposure".
State data showing that oil and gas producers flared methane this week "only make matters worse and could have been prevented" by winterizing facilities, she said.
The Texan oil and gas companies filed 174 reports of pollution releases between February 11 and 18, which, according to TCEQ data, were four times higher than the previous week.
According to TCEQ data analyzed by Environment Texas advocacy group, total pollution at facilities in the Houston area during the cold snap was approximately 703,000 pounds, roughly 3% of total pollution above allowable levels for all of 2019, and nearly 10% of spills for 2018.