We are years ahead of EPA regulations on the refining industry
By January 2019, U.S. petroleum refiners will have to be in compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Refinery Sector Rule. But throughout its seven-refinery system, Marathon Petroleum Corporation (MPC) is already substantially in compliance. “We are well ahead of the rule, primarily because we worked with the EPA to help establish the science behind several aspects of the rule,” said MPC Refining Environmental Manager Ruth Cade.
One of the primary drivers behind our aggressive approach to compliance is our collaborative research efforts on flare performance as part of an enforcement action that began in 2008. When notified of the EPA’s concerns regarding flare combustion efficiency, we took action. We conducted the first-ever performance tests of operating flares at our Texas City and Detroit refineries, and used the knowledge gained to establish operating parameters for all of the 22 flares throughout our refining system at the time. Our compliance strategy was formalized in a “consent decree,” which was finalized in 2012.
Our research helped provide the basis for the new flare standards in the EPA’s Refinery Sector Rule. In essence, the rule protects public health and the environment by determining the best processes and technologies to control emissions. The EPA determines what technologies are available to refiners, and also looks at pollutant thresholds that could impact public health. Based on the two factors, the EPA establishes rules for the industry.
For most of the new rule’s standards, we are substantially in compliance today. Rather than looking at environmental compliance as a drain on productivity, our philosophy is that being a safe, compliant operator is fundamental to our success as a company. We like to lead in areas of environmental stewardship because we see real business value. It’s simply not acceptable to cut corners, and in fact, we consistently go above and beyond what’s required of us.
There are five primary areas that refiners will be required to address under the EPA’s new Refinery Sector Rule. MPC’s refineries are currently either in compliance, or well ahead of the deadline for compliance, in all of these areas:
- Flare emissions: Flares are used by refiners as safety features. If there is any unit upset at a refinery, excess materials can be routed to the flare to be burned, rather than released into the air. This reduces toxicity. The new rule sets operating limits designed to ensure efficient flare combustion.
- Coker emissions: At refineries that produce petroleum coke (a coal-like solid fuel), the large coke drums must be depressurized before they are emptied. The new rule requires the drums’ internal pressures to be at a low level, to avoid excess emissions when they’re depressurized.
- Atmospheric relief valves: Many refineries have valves that allow process materials to vent into the atmosphere if the pressure gets too high. This is a safety feature to avoid a more serious incident. The new rule requires three levels of safeguards for these valves before they vent to the atmosphere, in order to reduce the potential occurrence of these events.
- Ambient fenceline monitors: Refiners will have to place portable carbon tubes that detect benzene levels around their facilities. Benzene is toxic in high concentrations.
- Standards for startup and shutdown: In the past, normal operating standards during startup and shutdown of refining operations were exempt and not regulated, because these phases only occur on an infrequent basis. The new rule establishes standards for these special circumstances.