To the “Church of Crude”: CENHS Class Tours the Baytown Refinery

Posted by on Mar 17, 2014
To the “Church of Crude”: CENHS Class Tours the Baytown Refinery

As part of the CENHS course “Culture, Energy and the Environment: An Introduction to Energy Humanities,” a group of Rice undergraduates visited ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery.  These are the reflections of four students.

Ben Hoff, Class of 2017, Mechanical Engineering

On Thursday, February 6th my classmates and I met at the student center in the middle of Rice’s campus. My journey from dorm to student center was no different than a routine trip to class. It started with my iPhone alarm buzzing to tell me it was time to go. It involved a hustle for the elevator, where hundreds of pounds of steel rose ten stories to meet the call of my index finger, only to glide back down with me inside. Before leaving, I swung by the servery to pick up lunch on the go: stuffed chicken breast, fresh fruit and salad greens prepared exclusively for my effortless consumption. Then I set out on quaint stone footpaths through picturesque manicured lawns. I passed regal buildings like Fondren Library, the massive labyrinth of academia consecrated by the pure, dignified, moral work of students like me. As I approached the student center I remember being annoyed that the cold weather was making it difficult to eat the food prepared for me. It’s really a shame that nobody’s figured out how to solve that problem and provide us with heated outdoor air.

We like to justify the extravagance of our life here with a hefty dose of self-aggrandizement. We think of Rice as a beautiful place built on the power of unconventional ideas, one where the brightest researchers, hardworking students, and influential corporations come together to solve the world’s problems. We love to fill our minds with theoretical mathematics, poetry, the history of the universe and the traditions of our residential colleges. And this is incredible, it’s fantastic. But equally incredible and fantastic is how much this wonderland of education, innovation, great food and happiness rests on the broad, dirty shoulders of the oil empire. What we were about to see on this trip was the ugly underbelly of our extravagance, the hidden infrastructure behind our high-energy lives. What we were about to witness was why it’s kept hidden.

As we arrived we were greeted by an overly-gregarious, cowboy boot-clad tour guide Pamela. After treating us to a generous lunch, she lauched into her speil. “You have no idea of the amazing things that this industry produces.” And she was right. Tires, medical aprons, diapers, crayons, ketchup bottles, windmill lubricant and Hershey’s chocolate were only a few examples. She wowed us with the $95,000/yr starting salary of an ExxonMobil engineer and told us of the coming energy boom. She was the preacher and we inductees into the church of crude.

On the tour of the plant we saw the scale of the operations she was so proud of. We saw four-story tall mountains of sulfur dozens of massive tanks of crude, and a 600 megawatt electric power plant that was exclusively providing power to the refinery. It cast us into a state of awe and amazement. We were members of the privileged few to see the empire behind the curtain of Baytown Refinery. Arching over our heads was an endless network of rusted steel pipes. Like the live oaks over Rice’s streets, it added to a sense of total immersion. Pamela told us it was enough pipe to circle the world three times over, and I believe her. The thought of her casting a giant steel Exxon-Mobil lasso around planet Earth seems less crazy the more you think about it. Amongst fireballs and smokestacks our attention was directed to one piece of equipment bought from Nazi Germany back in the 40s that still had a swastika painted on it. Its funny how when people want something bad enough, they become willing to buy it from anyone.

As we left ExxonMobil, we made our way back to our more comfortable side of the curtain. We passed through the industrial plants of Baytown, then the sprawl of the east Houston, then returned to our safehaven inside the hedges of Rice. Now as I sit and write this response in Fondren Library, my pure academic hideaway, I can go back to forgetting all about the ugly underbelly that allows for the lives we live. But I know Baytown is everywhere. It’s in the gas that we used to get back. It’s in the plastic computer keys through which I type this very word. It was in my iPhone when it told me to go to the student center, in my elevator ride, my lunch, and my picturesque walk across campus. But these are all expected concessions to the empire. But as I now research the history of the Baytown refinery, something jumped out at me. Baytown Refinery was opened in 1919 by a company called Humble Oil. The president and founder of Humble Oil, the man who cut the ribbon and watched proudly as Baytown consumed its first barrel of crude, was a young entrepreneur by the name of William Walter Fondren.

Nicole M., Class of 2016, Engineering

Our field trip to the Baytown refinery revealed much about the products, workings, and outlook of the oil industry that cannot be accurately and concisely conveyed in writing. Consequently, it was enlightening and eye-opening, though simultaneously somewhat depressing, since it revealed various problems with our current energy system.

On one hand, the tour was incredibly informative, shedding light on the role of the oil industry and the actual mechanical and chemical processes involved in processing oil. For instance, we learned that oil is valuable not only for the energy it provides for processing and transportation; it’s also a key component of numerous seemingly unrelated industries: plastics, rubber, food, lubricants, etc. Surprisingly, Hershey’s uses food-grade wax derived from oil to thicken liquid chocolate and enable its chocolate bars to keep their shape; oil also provides material for toothbrush bristles and rubber for car tires. Additionally, the tour demonstrated the infrastructure necessary to process oil. The sheer size and intricacy of the refinery was highly impressive. The plant occupies approximately 3400 hundred acres of land and reaches far beyond that in scope and worldwide connections; it process upwards of 585,000 barrels of oil a day, and when placed end-to-end, its pipes would encircle the globe three times. These numbers are almost too large to comprehend; refining oil on an industrial scale is arguably one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.

However, these same details clearly illustrated our increasingly ridiculous dependency on oil, which added a sober overtone to the trip. The show and tell portion of the presentation emphasized the extent to which oil has permeated every facet of our lives; oil products are even incorporated as ingredients in our food, one industry which I had expected to be relatively oil-free beyond the machines used in growing, processing, and transporting food. The complicated infrastructure demonstrates the lengths to which we are willing to go to drag oil out of the ground, for even the huge Baytown refinery supplies only about three percent of the oil consumed in America alone. This really puts our energy gluttony in perspective, and it should be a sign that something needs to change in our lifestyles.

Over the course of the presentation and tour, I gathered a sense of the oil industry’s attitude towards their business. First, the presentation was very biased; the ExxonMobil representative was primarily concerned with painting ExxonMobil and the oil industry in a positive light to defeat the widespread negative impression of the oil and gas industry. She tried too hard, however, and the extent to which she emphasized the economic benefits of oil—she discussed no memorable non-economic benefits—really made oil sound incredibly economic-centered. She often introduced new concepts by saying the process was “another way we make money,” which sounds crude and shallow. Overall, she was proud of being a part of Baytown, and she was very competitive with other plants, confident that Baytown would continue to be one of the biggest plants in the United States and worldwide. It may not be fair to judge the entire plant, company, and industry on the basis of one encounter with one employee, but the system as a whole seems very shallow.  ExxonMobil cares more about the potential financial gains than that they’re damaging the environment and potentially endangering our futures. I understand that money makes the world go round, but it seems that they could demonstrate just a little more empathy and concern for the environment and human health and consider the consequences of their actions beyond the fines they might incur.

Overall, I came away from Baytown with a better idea of what escaping from oil would really entail. We would not only have to overcome our extreme dependence on oil, reinventing countless processes and products that currently derive from fossil fuels, we would also have to overcome greed and the idea that money is the most important factor in our lives. This seems like a pretty steep order, especially if we want to move away from oil before it becomes economically essential, but hopefully we can start to address this issue before it’s too late.

Jackie Li, Class of 2017, Natural Sciences

We walk in to a brightly lit room. The tables are set up in a U-shape, to foster discussion and a comfortable learning environment. A cheery woman welcomes us with a big smile and gestures us towards the table at the back, where we are assaulted with a feast—at least, it seemed like a feast since I wasn’t expecting any food. Assorted cookies, hot broccoli cheddar soup, a selection of sandwich wraps, and bottled drinks lay out before us. I couldn’t have thought of a better introduction to the largest oil refinery in the United States, the ExxonMobil Baytown refinery.

The presentation and tour we were given was well-designed.  Had I not been more knowledgeable about the topic or possessed common sense, I would have walked away thinking, “Wow, they really are outdoing themselves producing such an essential energy source and mitigating what seems like almost all of its environmental pollutants.” Pamela started off with a brief introduction of the refinery and then launched into a twenty-minute segment about all the different products that oil plays a part in. Oil is in so many of our everyday products, from seatbelts to chocolate. This fossil fuel is so pervasive that it has invaded every aspect of our personal and professional lives—even typing this response on my computer requires petroleum. By showing us the multitude of items that involve petroleum, Pamela was trying to show us how important petroleum is and how we can’t survive without it. She implied that the usefulness of it outweighs its environmental costs and because it is in basically everything, we should view the harmful pollutants as a necessary evil. That was the intended effect. To be honest, her spiel scared me. The fact that oil was in such a wide variety of products only further convinced me that our addiction to oil is unhealthy and needs to be immediately addressed. We all know oil is an unsustainable resource, and that the current American lifestyle cannot last. I am afraid for future generations—if we cannot develop sustainable energy resources within the next century we will either run out of oil or our earth will be altered to the point where it cannot provide for its current population.

With the ability to process up to 584,000 barrels of oil a day, you would think that the refinery would have pretty significant environmental impacts. This was an aspect of petroleum production that our guide conveniently did not mention. During our tour, Pamela pointed out various structures and also talked quite a bit about all the infrastructure Exxon has built that attempt to alleviate the harmful emissions given off by petroleum refining. A couple of water drums and the statistic that Baytown emits “way below” the emission cap were supposed to convince us that they take the environment seriously. I do see that the environmental effects are not completely ignored, but at the same time I’m not fooled; I know that oil production and profit is the main focus of Exxon, and these half-hearted attempts at environmental consciousness are intended to fool those who can’t be bothered to investigate further.

Right now we can keep producing oil this way—but in 50 years when the effects of climate change are too drastic to ignore, which way will we turn? Oil is not the answer, and has never been. It has been a catalyst of change and a trigger for scientific progress but is not a long-term solution.  It is now the problem, and sustainable energy is the solution.

Lynnie S., Class of 2014, Astrophysics

In Lebanon, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, there lays a city called Tripoli. It is not the Tripoli most people think of when they hear the name (that’s the one in Libya) but it is no less important. Tripoli, Lebanon is the end point of a vast pipeline carrying oil from the Saudi Arabian oilfields to a place where it can be refined, then loaded onto oil tankers and shipped across the sea. My mother grew up in that city. On the coast just outside the city proper were the refineries, and the big piers out to sea where the ships pull in to take refined products to the big tankers, and they still are there to this day. Most of the beaches in Tripoli are very crowded, but there is one area that is secluded, and few people swim in it. My mother swam at that beach all the time. The reason the beach is not used by many people is because that is where all the emissions from the refinery drift. My mom to this day remembers the sulfurous smell that filled the area when the winds were not right, the malodorous stank of benzene vapor and hydrogen sulfide gas. One summer, while visiting my family, I decided to go to the beach. I jumped in the water, and had myself a good time. Then I noticed these strange blackish-grey specks dotted across the surface of the water. They were tiny, almost spherical but rough-hewn, like little pebbles that somehow could float. It was ash. Ash from the refinery smokestacks, where they were burning the heavy byproducts to power their equipment.

What does this have to do with ExxonMobil’s refinery at Baytown, you might ask. Lebanon is a third-world country with barely any government and overrun with corruption and militias and poverty. Quite a lot, actually. When I was a young child in elementary school, and my mother was now living in the states, she was working in Pasadena. Here there were even more refineries than in her hometown, operating at even higher capacities, with greater levels of technology. In part from working there for many years, in part from her childhood living next to the refineries, she has developed severe asthma, and so have many of my relatives. Needless to say when I constantly heard the ExxonMobil representative state time and time again that they were not only meeting but also exceeding federal environmental standards, and that they were expanding to third world countries and helping them develop, I was more than a little skeptical. While as a scientist-in-training, I am fascinated by the mechanics of how atoms bond together and how each molecule has its own special properties, transforming into others with reactions of wondrous variety, I cannot say I am as thrilled by the actions of the people who take the magic of the chemical realm and use it without regard to the lives of those who can least protest. If you look at who lives in places like Baytown and Pasadena (or for that matter, Tripoli) these are places full of people of low economic means. It has been documented people living in the Baytown areas have much higher-than-average rates of lung diseases and that children born there can develop severe and debilitating asthma at a young age. When one factors in the fact that people of low economic status in the U.S. are at high risk for obesity, that these children are being deprived of a chance to play outside at such a young age is disheartening.

As I was listening to the ExxonMobil representative speak, I was almost waiting for a slip-up, some turn of phrase that would expose something unpalatable. But for the most part, she stuck to  stating all the good things about the Baytown complex, and explaining what different apparatuses did. At last, however, my chance came when she talked about how her company was now investing widely in developing nations. This was where she would reveal her thoughts (or at least the thoughts that were okay to say to us) on the exploitation of oil in places like my parents’ homeland. I listened intently… When she got to talking about Papua New Guinea, and about how workers in a new refinery there were now having to wear steel-toed shoes where they had not worn any shoes before, she stated that ExxonMobil was now giving them jobs, instead of abandoning them to be, in her words, “headhunters.” Nobody in the van we were riding in said a word, but I couldn’t help but notice that this sounded quite bigoted. If the tribal peoples of Papua New Guinea aren’t developing according to the Western standard of oil dependence, does that make them no better than headhunters? Never mind the fact that traditional tribal warfare (of the “headhunting” sort) has all but vanished from New Guinea in the post WWII era. I couldn’t help but think that this was a Freudian slip, a reveal of the true attitude ExxonMobil has to its partners overseas. In many of these countries where refineries are located, the average citizen benefits little, and I thought perhaps I should say something, but I kept my mouth shut out of respect. Instead, I turned my head to look out the window, as I had been doing before, and continued to feel the heat steaming off of the pipes as furnace-boiled compounds were taken through a maze of twist and turns like the gut of some mechanical animal.

On the side of the road, nestled in a ditch with all the white and tan gravel next to another block of rusty pipes, was a brown colored puddle. A House sparrow fluttered down, dunking its head in the water for a brief moment, then shaking itself dry. With a short tchip! it flapped away, the sole animal in an otherwise non-living landscape of rock, metal, and hydrocarbon. This in itself was nothing surprising — House sparrows are a non-native species from Europe that follow humans wherever there’s garbage — but it nonetheless caught my eye. It reminded me of the day I swam in the ash-dusted bay down the shores from Tripoli. I put on my goggles, snorkel, and flippers, and dived down. Where they weren’t scared away by the roar of the ship engines at the piers, lay a whole other world, oblivious to the pollution choking the air above. Darting between the rocks were pink, blue and green colored peacock wrasse, swimming up and down the jetties were schools of mullet and sea bream, and way down in the depths, two painted combers-colorful relatives of sea bass-circled around each other amongst purple and green sea anemones. That was when I realized that as much as we damage the environment, and as many species as we kill in a mass extinction, life will find a way. Once the destruction ceases, either because we choose to stop, or because we have destroyed ourselves, the Earth can heal. This is not to say that we should not care about endangered species, or stop preserving ecosystems. But what it does mean is we should realize the greatest threat we pose is actually to ourselves. There will always be survivors. The question is whether we will be one of them.

Students at Baytown