Sunday, January 15, 2012

Breathe free and easy, Venezuela, refinery emissions are under control

I have to admit being a bit puzzled after stumbling over this press release from Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA. The company for no apparent reason in late December put out a statement trumpeting the fact that the El Palito refinery’s emissions are up to code, based on a study done by a company that is not identified.

I’m really having trouble with this one. El Palito has for years been the butt of oil industry jokes because of its frequent unplanned shutdowns and unfortunate track record of accidents. This of course gives oil traders a lot to chuckle about, particularly since many already enjoy laughing about the Chavez government’s inept management of the country’s oil industry.

But from an environment point of view, this is neither irrelevant nor funny. A refinery that abruptly shuts down its operations in most cases will have to burn off large quantities of partially refined petroleum, sending a huge plume of black smoke into the air and considerably increasing the likelihood for the release of noxious chemicals including things like sulfur dioxide or hydrogen sulfide. If you’re going to shut down a refinery, you need to do it with time and planning. Refineries that are constantly shutting down on a dime should not be regarded as safe, and are not likely to be up to environmental code.

And there are plenty of examples of El Palito not having it together.

Just this month it announced a five-day shutdown due to a problem with some kind of valve system. That was less than a month after it failed to properly restart following an earlier unplanned shutdown related to heavy rains, which also struck me as a bit odd. So PDVSA’s now excited about El Palito being up to emissions code. They commissioned a study from “a specialized company, approved by the Ministry for the Popular Power of the Environment,” of 11 of the refineries chimneys.

“Among the most relevant results were the emissions of carbon monoxide and nitrogen monoxide, which were below the legal limit, which shows El Palito’s refinery operations work toward the conservation of the environment,” PDVSA said in a statement. The company hasn’t responded to my phone calls trying to get more details about who did the study, when it was conducted, and what levels of the toxic gas emissions were found. Most of all, I’d like to know whether they’re talking about average emissions levels throughout the entire year or if this refers to the “peak” emissions that are most likely take place during unplanned shutdowns. My suspicion is these guys not telling the whole truth.

There are not a lot of reasons to think PDVSA is really taking care of the environment, in large part because there are few signs that anyone’s making them. Much like the problem I mentioned here, Venezuela’s environment ministry is simply never going to go after a much bigger and more powerful PDVSA. One of the few cases of environmental negligence cited by the company was against El Palito itself on charges that an engineer running a maintenance program allowed more than one hundred spills. PDVSA responded by naming that person to head one of its recently nationalized projects in the Orinoco belt. So much for working toward the conservation of the environment.

And El Palito isn’t alone. According to El Universal, the country’s refining circuit has been hit by eight refinery outages in the last 30 days alone, without a mea culpa from PDVSA or any evidence of action by the environment ministry. That’s a good sign that PDVSA and the government are comfortable flushing Venezuela’s environment down the toilet.

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