How oil is made

Christopher Johnson, BURN Digital Producer

Americans use a LOT of oil. About 20 million barrels a day. Much of that oil – before it’s turned into products we use in our cars, our homes, and our plastic water bottles – exists in 2 basic forms: light (sweet) crude, and heavy crude.

heavy vs light crude

Heavy (left) vs light crude oil.

Light crude is the most desirable because it’s low in sulfur – an element that must be processed out of oil. That means companies have to spend less time and energy turning light crude into useful products.

That low sulfur content is also why it’s sometimes called “sweet.” Early prospectors used to taste the oil, to know what they had on their hands.

Light crude is found largely in the US Gulf states and Nigeria. Canada also has large sweet crude deposits.

In Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Iraq, heavy crude is most common. “Heavy” because it has a lot of impurities – including wax – that have to be removed through costly processing.

SWEET & SOUR PROCESSING

Liquid petroleum pumped up out of the ground needs refining. Once the sulfur and other impurities are removed, it goes through a distillation process that Michael Poehl – who teaches about oil refining at The University of Texas at Austin – says isn’t unlike making your own liquor.

Knowing what you’ve got on the other side of the refining process takes some chemistry. Here are a few basics.

hydrocarbon chains

Hydrocarbon chains of varying lengths lead to different petroleum products. (chemistryland.com)

Petroleum is made up of compounds that include hydrogen atoms and carbon atoms. They bind to form hydrocarbon molecules.

Each of those hydrocarbons is like a chain link. When just a few hydrocarbons are linked together, you get a very light petroleum product – like methane and propane gases. Several dozen hydrocarbon links locked together means heavier stuff – lubricating or heavy fuel oil.

So, a company pours a drum of crude oil into a refinery. The refining process breaks up the oil’s hydrocarbon chains into various lengths, so that out comes a bunch of different products.

The most valuable is gasoline. About 40% of the crude that goes into a refinery comes out as gasoline.

Refinery components

Components and outputs of a typical refinery.

There are different kinds of refineries. Those built mainly to process light crude are focused on creating gasoline. Heavy crude refineries are designed to first get the impurities out, and then process the oil. Poehl says that the key to refinery economics is to optimize whichever crude strain is being processed. That means finding the cheapest, fastest, most efficient ways to get as much product as possible out of the crude that goes in.

TAR SANDS

Another oil source is tar sands – loose sand or sandstone saturated by a kind of thick, goopy petroleum called bitumen. Tar sands are especially plentiful in Northwestern Canada.

Tar sand hands

They are tough to work with because the petroleum is so heavy. In these deposits, the natural oil/sand mixture has to be heated in order to extract the petroleum. Refiners may have to process a ton of sand to get a barrel of oil, Poehl explains. Still, a lot of oil people are betting on tar.

One major tar sands project is the proposed 1,700- mile Keystone XL Pipeline, which would run from western Canada through the central United States and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Keystone_Pipeline_System

The plan has sparked a lot of debate, and opposition from farmers and environmental groups that say the tar sands are especially corrosive and thick, and therefore prone to leaking from the pipeline and onto farm land.

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Tar sands in the US? It’s not just about the Keystone Pipeline

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

This just in: the Obama Administration continues trying to walk the very fine line that will least anger his many critics in the energy industry and among environmental groups.

 The latest is an announcement last week from the outgoing Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar. It’s about development of potentially huge hydrocarbon reserves in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The DOI agency that manages federal lands – aptly named the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – has formulated new rules about how to exploit these reserves in a way that it says is environmentally sound, and a good financial deal for the feds and, ultimately, taxpayers.

From comments by Mr. Salazar: “This plan maintains a strong focus on research and development to promote new technologies that may eventually lead to safe and responsible commercial development of these domestic energy resources. It will help ensure that we acquire critically important information about these technologies and their potential effects on the landscape, especially our scarce water resources in the West.” 

But it’s a good bet that no one will be happy with this. There are oil shale and tar sands operations already set to get underway this summer in Utah – operating on state and private lands, and thus not subject to BLM rules. The tar sands operation would be the first of its kind in this country. The oil shale facility would be the first US site for that development in thirty years.

Both hydrocarbons are solids in their natural state, and must be treated, and often heated, to be transformed into petroleum. The estimated recoverable reserves of these hydrocarbons are enormous – perhaps three times the size of the oil holdings in Saudi Arabia. The world’s easy-to-get petroleum reserves are dwindling, but the industry sees huge potential payoffs in these ‘unconventional’ fuels.

And the Greens see a disaster. The climate numbers keep getting worse. Much worse. More hydrocarbons = more devastation for our children and grandchildren, the Greens say. We have to leave some hydrocarbons in the ground, and these are the ones to start with. It takes more energy to make them usable, which means their carbon consequences are even greater than normal petroleum.

Oh, by the way: jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs. And jobs.

This new BLM proposed rule is now open for 60 days of comment. It’s just another small tick for the time bomb of energy and climate. And why now? An act of grace by Mr. Salazar. His replacement, the new Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc., is about to get a confirmation vote by the full US Senate. She’ll be glad this isn’t waiting for her. But those 60 days will pass soon enough.

The ticking doesn’t ever stop. There’s a tremendous political fight in this country right now about the Keystone XL Pipeline meant to carry Canadian tar sands to US Gulf Coast refineries. As US land continues to be developed for tar sand exploitation, the fight won’t just be about resources coming in from Canada. The battle will be here, too.
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