While We Are On The Subject of Oil...

Glen Reynolds brings us this:

A provision in the US Carbon Neutral Government Act incorporated
into the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 act effectively
bars the US government from buying fuels that have greater life-cycle
emissions than fuels produced from conventional petroleum sources.

The United States has defined Alberta oilsands as unconventional
because the bitumen mined from the ground requires upgrading and
refining as opposed to the traditional crude pumped from oil wells.

California Democrat Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the
House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Republican Tom
Davis added the clause.

Uh, right.  Since we all burn pure unrefined crude oil pumped right from the oil well in our car. 

Here is what a traditional crude oil goes through before it becomes gasoline:

  • Water and salt must be removed
  • The oil is heated up to over 700 degrees, and is separated into its fractions via distillation.  Oil is made up of hydrocarbon chains of many lengths, from short ones (methane, ethane, propane) to very long ones (asphalt, heavy motor oils).  Gasoline is somewhere in between.
  • Each fraction generally has to be de-sulfurized.  This generally occurs by injecting hydrogen into the fraction across a catalyst bed to remove the sulfur as Hydrogen Sulfide, a dangerous gas that must be further processed to produce pure sulfur.
  • The gasoline fractions in a typical oil are nowhere near large enough for the relative demand.  So additional steps must be taken to produce gasoline:
    • Very heavy fractions have their molecules cracked at high temperatures, either in cokers, high temperature crackers or in fluid catalyst bed crackers.  These processes either remove carbon in its pure form or remove it by combining it with hydrogen
    • Certain fractions are reformed in combination with hyrdrogen, sometimes across a platinum catalyst, to produce molecules with better properties for gasoline, including higher octane.
    • All over a refinery, there are small units that take individual fractions that use a variety of processes to create specific molecules that have useful properties
  • All of these different fractions and products are blended in various proportions to make different grades of gasoline.  These blends and proportions can change from city to city (to meet environmental regulations, Phoenix must have a gasoline blend that is unique in the US) and must change season to season (gas that burns well in winter will vapor lock in the summer time).

I am sure I left tons of steps out, but you get the idea.  Below are my old digs at Exxon's Baytown Texas Refinery, where I worked as an engineer for 3 years out of college:

Baytown2  Baytown_2


  1. Fred from Canuckistan . . .:

    Take it as fact that Canadians would rather sell the products from the the Alberta and Saskatchewan Oil Sands to our American neighbour and Allie. We have reserves exceeding Saudi Arabia and want to sell them.

    However if Senator Waxman has decided that Americans do not want it, we will just sell it the the Chinese who are banging on the door and want to sign up long term delivery contracts.

    Just an upgrade to pipelines to the West Coast and those Chinese ships will be lined up, filled up and sent sailing west.

    Waxman's altruism probably plays well in latte land California where Ahnold has drunk the AGW Kool Aid

  2. epobirs:

    With very few exceptions, Waxman is the source of some incredibly dumb legislation. On the few occasions he pushed for something I didn't immediately find completely unacceptable, I've often found upon closer examination there was hidden depths disguising the evil and/or idiocy afoot.

  3. Mike from Ohio:

    This just means that the USG can't buy the oil sands product. it doesn't bar Exxon, Shell, etc from buying and selling it to us.

  4. Mesa Econoguy:

    Henry Waxman should be burned at the stake using North Sea Brent.

  5. Blue Skye:

    I did my time at Exxon in the Bayway Refinery...hydrotreating process engineer. Preparing for the Parachute shale oil project.

  6. tim:

    Ahhh. Nothing so beautiful as an oil refinery at sunset...

  7. SuperMike:

    I agree with tim, oil facilities can be quite dramatic from an aesthetic point of view.

    bars the US government from buying fuels that have greater life-cycle emissions than fuels produced from conventional petroleum sources

    So, biofuels are out, then? :) Who has standing to sue for an injunction?

  8. vanderleun:

    If we cannot buy Canadian crude and cannot drill in Anwar, may I suggest we drill in the last greatest oil repository in Washington, Henry Waxman's nostrils.