Melissa Teng and Emily Hughes Report on a Tour of the Exxon Mobil Baytown Refinery

Posted by on Jun 15, 2013
Melissa Teng and Emily Hughes Report on a Tour of the Exxon Mobil Baytown Refinery

Photo courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. For more on CLUI’s work in Texas, see http://clui.org/page/texas-oil-landscape-industry

This tour was organized by Gökçe Günel and Marcel LaFlamme, instructor and TA for a course on the social studies of energy at Rice.

 

On the morning of  Wednesday April 10th, nine undergraduate students and three instructors paid a visit to the largest oil refinery and chemical processing plants in the U.S. The Baytown refinery, owned by ExxonMobil, is situated outside a sprawling city of houses, churches, and small businesses where the residents are all reportedly connected to the refinery in one way or another. The refinery itself has a campus of about 2,400 acres, maintaining an impressive capacity of over 560,000 barrels per day held back by 750 massive tanks.

Passing through an enclave of trees, our “charter” bus pulled into a circle drive leading to a decidedly underwhelming glass building–given the scale of ExxonMobil’s activities within. (It may be interesting to note, however, that this glass building was the only moderately modern-looking building I recall seeing in the surrounding city.) A white “ExxonMobil” flag waved meekly to the side, modestly placed away from the main entrance. On both sides of the walkway, an underground rainwater system spilled into an unsculpted lagoon. Natural microbes had colored the freshwater an artificial blue, which intentionally or not is a strange design for an otherwise honorable idea.

Topped off by the cover of surrounding trees and dreary weather reflected on the glass, the Baytown office hardly resonated as a significant branch of the world’s largest company by revenue.

We were led inside by a cheerful woman who was delighted to lead a group of Rice students and whose excitement faltered when she learned we were not engineering students. Nonetheless, her pride in her work was tangible as she effusively described the production and processing capabilities and spread of Baytown. It is incredible that 70% of hydrocarbons–including all plastics and synthetics–had some origin in ExxonMobil. Baytown alone has the capacity to produce all the jet fuel for NASA.

As a communications major and working single mother with four daughters, one of whom is paid handsomely and on “the fast track to management” at Chevron, our tour guide had many personal incentives to support the oil and gas industry. Her counterpart, a petite chemical engineering major, has family history deeply rooted in oil and gas, and had eight job offers upon graduation as a female engineer. For them, the industry has supported their past and will feed their future, making it understandable that they are assertive towards the negative criticism of environmental groups.

“Nobody got hurt,” our guide defended when explaining an “unplanned combustible incident” (or, a large industrial fire). The dangers of a refinery are not lost on Baytown however. Safety precautions are plastered on walls like political posters. With so many potential employee “eyes, toes, and fingers” in danger and a volunteer firefighting team of co-workers risking their lives to save other co-workers, it is not outrageous–and thus troubling–that long-term injuries to the environment are not discussed and dismissed as inconsequential.

Of the three thousand employees on the refinery, the large majority are hands-on maintenance workers. Most, if not all, must come from the surrounding city, which views the Baytown refinery as a staple provider of jobs. For the slightly fewer specialized workers, they must have sat through several exams to master their own section of the refinery. However, the number of people who can claim a comprehensive understanding of the larger refinery is roughly 10% of the workforce, which limits potential system innovators to that 10%. In such a vertical integrated model, questioning the system’s efficiency must be even less rare than any substantial resistance brought upon by outlandish topics such as “global warming.”

On multiple occasions, our tour guide mentioned, “We have everything we need to be self-sufficient.” With its own cargo trains, railways, buildings, and small caring population, it seems to be so. However, like the functional yet unearthly blue lagoons, the world provided by the Baytown refinery is one where utility and operation comes at the expense of intuitive beauty. The refinery is an industrial wasteland enclosed by hundreds of elevated pipelines (“easier to see leaks”) running through the towers, smoke pipes, and pits like a futuristic transportation system. Living organisms within the campus gates are limited to workers in hardhats and sparse grass. The refinery paints a disquieting image of a man-made future where metallic silvers, copper rust, and chrome machinery dominates the color palette. Despite our cheerful and product-driven introduction, it was difficult to connect what I saw with NASA, ergonomic water bottles, and steady incomes for thousands.

As our bus left the refinery village, I got the sense that our small group had just glimpsed into an unknown utilitarian factory whose products we use every day and do not question, “At what cost?” My instinct is to recall the refinery’s nightmarish landscape, but in addressing the morality of an oil and gas refinery, I am also forced to think about the personal incentives all of the workers have to defend it. In the fight for environmentalism, offering GHG emission and “unplanned combustible incident” numbers may be enough to win a court case, but it will not be enough to convince the industry of the social cause. For Environment Texas, a state group with several cases against Baytown air contaminants and unsafe health practices, it is important to look at the larger picture of what they are fighting for—environment and man—and to not wholly detach the mechanical operation from its human components. Both Environment Texas and the Baytown refinery workers should have a balanced understanding of the negative and positive consequences of energy production, in the short- and long-term, and for all levels of ecosystems. From there, it is equally as important to communicate without exaggeration to others in the industry, impacted community, and greater society.