Petroleum, Refineries, and the Future

Petroleum, Refineries, and the Future

About this Project

by Jonathan Steinwand
This scalar book was created as a part of the Fall 2017 Concordia College (Moorhead, Minnesota) inquiry seminar called "BREWing the Bakken: The Oil Boom, the Fossil Fuel Era, and the Future of Energy." With my minimal facilitation, these six first-year undergrate honors students have worked individually to research, analyze, and evaluate various issues involving the role of refineries in the contemporary analysis of petroleum culture. This same class has also authored a collection of petrocritical book club guides available as the Scalar book, Petroleum, Politics, and Prose Narrative. The 2016 version of this class created two other Scalar books available as Global Petrofiction Book Club Guides and Pipe Dreams: Perspectives on Five North American Pipeline Projects.

I. Cathedrals of Progress: Petroleum Refineries in the American Century of Oil

Refineries can be seen as particular expressions of the historically specific relations between petroleum and society.Thus the use value of crude oil as expressed in refining processes is contigent on the historically specific politics and culture of capitalism at a given moment.    --Matthew Huber 70

The increasing prosperity of the United States in the twentieth century became entangled with petroleum extraction, the petrochemical industry, transportation, and the refining process. Often overlooked in the system is the role of the petroleum refinery. In fact when more attention has been focused on oil spills, pollution, and contamination since the 1970s, the industry has attempted to minimize the attention it draws to the refineries insofar as they have been considered a blight on the industry. Interestingly enough, however, the petroleum industry had initially promoted the refinery as a symbol of progress and ingenuity, the places where the magical substance known as oil is converted into so many convenient products. Matthew T. Huber's Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital, an environmental geographical history of oil, has been our guide for considering how these cathedrals of progress become emblematic of our conflicted relationship to oil. One example that Huber includes to show how blatantly the industry wanted to make oil visible to the public is the narration of the 1957 television special commemorating the 75th anniversary of Standard Oil, in which the show's host celebrates the role that oil plays in American progress and prosperity:

[M]ost of the rubber we use in this country does not come from trees, it's made from oil, manmade fibers are derived from oil, asphalt roads, medicines, all made from that incredible chemical wonderbox petroleum. But most important, oil is energy--energy to lighten man's toil and to increase his time for leisure and study. (qtd. in Huber 72)

Such a tribute belongs to an era in which the oil industry sought to make oil visible in daily life. Shailesh Thapa's contribution to this collection, "Appreciating Oil Refinery Science" argues that we really have to marvel and appreciate how many different products come out of the process and the science and technology that goes into the process. 

II. Climate Changers  

While in the 1950s and 1960s refineries were the place where "that incredible chemical wonderbox petroleum" magically creates all sorts of modern products and conveniences for mid-century modern suburban life, suddenly in the 1970s refineries become known more for being dirty polluters. Now they are known to be major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change. Furthermore, as Klara Beinhorn recounts in her contribution, "The (In)Visible Violence of Petroleum Refineries," the environmental justice movement organizes to cry out for justice in the face of the disproportionate health concerns among the communities of color and the poor who live near the refineries because other citizens with the resources to be heard clamor that such dirty and toxic refineries are fine so long as they are "Not In My Back Yard"!

In this era, the industry prefers not to call too much attention to the refinery because the public is determined to see that it clean up its act. Baily Klause's contribution to this collection, "Exploring Pollution and the Environmental Impacts Associated with Petroleum Refining,"  emphasizes that even today, refinery operations ought to be focused on using the most sustainable practices that are feasible because we may still be relying on oil and fossil fuels for the next several decades. Similarly, Jake Rames in "Health, Petroleum Refineries, and the Future" traces the health implications of refinery pollution and concludes that moving refineries away from population centers could alleviate a number of the major health concerns. 

This was also the era in which a consensus begins to emerge that we have somehow become "addicted to oil" and foreign oil begins to garner much of the focus. When oil is coming from far away, the environmental destruction and social injustice is more out of sight and out of mind. Nevertheless, as Sam Hermann argues in his contribution, "Global Environmental Justice: Holding Refineries Accountable," the invisible violence is merely being exported to other places on the planet. If we pay attention, we can see the injustice clearly in oil extraction centers from the Niger River Delta to Ecuador.

III. Making Oil Visible Again

Yet there are forces today that seek to make oil and its infrastructure visible again, for example the water protectors along the pipeline paths‚Äč and the promoters of domestic energy independence as an issue of national security. 

On the one side, expanding on the environmental justice movement, we have what Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, refers to as the Blockadia movement: across the planet, local groups are standing up against the fossil fuel industry through protest and defiance. A new urgency can be found in that this industry not only pollutes the air we breathe and contaminates the ground we grow in but it also loads the atmosphere with harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Compelling evidence indicates that the climate is changing dramatically largely as a result of human influence (of which the fossil fuel industry plays a huge part). More and more people seem to be advocating, as Beinhorn does in her piece, that the best solution would be to transition as quickly as possible away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy. 

On the other side of this spectrum, there is also a significant, wealthy, and influential contingent of industry leaders and politicians who argue for domestic energy security. Prominent among these "drill baby drill" advocates are people like Harold Hamm and President Donald J. Trump. Fast-tracking the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL pipelines, dismantling the Obama era clean power plan, and opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for drilling, and appointing the CEO of ExxonMobile as the Secretary of State are all ways of making oil visible again, but in a very different way than the water protectors mentioned above. The desire to increase domestic oil production coincides with a growing distrust in the reliability of cheap foreign oil. Yet, at the same time, it brings what was not in our back yards back into our own backyards again. With the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters such as hurricanes, floods, fires, and terrorism, oil refineries must pay close attention to their disaster preparedness, as Nicholas Steinhofer argues in "Disaster Risks and What Refineries Can Do to Best Prepare." Hurricane Harvey provides a case in point: not only were refineries shut down by the storm, but extreme flooding distributed the toxic effects of pollution across a wider than usual area.

The petrocritics whose work is collected here hope, in their own ways, to make oil and its implications visible again as well. Once it is, we can have a clear-eyed debate about where petroleum, refineries, and the alternatives fit into our energy future.

Works Cited

Huber, Matthew T. Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital. U of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York, 2014.

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