“Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed,
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin’ at some food,
When up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude
Oil that is - black gold - Texas tea.”
theme song and memorable opening montage, smash-hit sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies made the oil business look pretty simple when it ran for 200 episodes from 1962 through 1971.
The ease of Jed Clampett’s oil find likely persuaded more than one viewer to assume you can just pour the “black gold” straight into your car, plane or boat and keep on going.
What wasn’t explained in the show’s rags-to-riches back story and is often overlooked today, is that all-important in-between step known as oil refining.
Refineries around the world process raw crude oil feedstock. It is separated, converted and treated to produce the fuels needed for our extensive transportation network.
Without the gasoline, diesel and jet fuel produced by refineries, our vehicles would literally grind to a halt.
Higher sulphur content
Recently a handful of refineries in the United States that process oil sands bitumen attracted the attention of environmental group ForestEthics. A ForestEthics report suggests that communities located near these facilities are at a higher risk for health concerns (PDF).
The report points to bitumen’s composition, which includes more sulphur in it than conventional crudes. The report asserts that refineries processing bitumen emit more sulphur dioxide (SO2) per barrel than refineries that process conventional crudes, and are therefore more dangerous.
Are refineries that process bitumen really dangerous to community health?
The facts suggest otherwise. Oil sands bitumen is safely processed at refineries throughout North America. Suncor, for example, safely operates a 135,000 barrel-per-day refinery in Edmonton, Alberta which exclusively processes bitumen.
SO2 emission limits
Suncor’s refinery and other facilities that process bitumen are subject to stringent limits on their sulphur dioxide emission levels. These limits are in place to protect the environment surrounding these facilities and to protect the health of everyone living nearby.
Refineries that process bitumen have sulphur recovery units, tail gas recovery units and other specialized equipment designed to capture SO2. Sulphur recovery units, for example remove the sulphur from bitumen and convert it into a molten form (which is inert and harmless when properly stored and used in other industries).
Refinery products such as diesel and gasoline have sulphur specifications too. Burning and consuming these products in vehicle engines doesn’t impact SO2 emissions at all.
Though oil refining may never be fodder for a Hollywood sitcom, it is an essential component of our current energy system. And whether refineries process oil sands bitumen or conventional crudes, it is technology and careful monitoring which ensures these facilities deliver the products we need while minimizing impacts to the communities in which they operate.