Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives

Oil Refineries Fail to Report Millions of Pounds of Harmful Emissions

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Courtesy of Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives

Executive Summary

This report summarizes the findings of an investigation by the minority staff of the House Government Reform Committee into fugitive emissions from oil refineries. The investigation was requested by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the ranking member of the Committee on Government Reform. It finds that (1) oil refineries vastly underreport leaks from valves to federal and state regulators and that (2) these unreported fugitive emissions from oil refineries add millions of pounds of harmful pollutants to the atmosphere each year, including over 80 million pounds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and over 15 million pounds of toxic pollutants. These emissions could be eliminated if refineries complied with the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

Oil refineries are one of the largest sources of air pollution in the United States. Refineries are the single largest stationary source of VOCs, the primary precursor of urban smog. Refineries are also the fourth largest industrial source of toxic emissions and the single largest industrial source of benzene emissions.

One of the major causes of air pollution at oil refineries is high levels of “fugitive emissions.” Fugitive emissions are emissions from equipment leaks, such as valves, storage tanks, and other industrial equipment. In fact, over half of all reported VOC and toxic emissions from refineries are fugitive emissions.

This report on fugitive emissions from refineries is based on a review of enforcement records and other information obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These documents reveal that oil refineries fail to report large volumes of fugitive emissions. The average oil refinery reports to state and federal regulators that 1.3% of the valves at its facilities have leaks. In fact, the average leak rate from valves at oil refineries is 5.0% -- nearly four times higher than the average reported leak rate.

The failure to properly detect and repair leaking valves has a substantial adverse impact on air quality in the United States. At the request of Rep. Waxman, EPA has estimated that oil refineries are releasing at least 80 million pounds of undetected VOCs from leaking valves each year. These unreported fugitive emissions from refineries are the 11th largest industrial source of VOC emissions in the United States, exceeding the emissions of many other large industries, including pulp mills, tire manufacturers, and synthetic rubber manufacturers.

The state and local impacts of these emissions can be significant. Nearly half of the unreported fugitive VOC emissions are estimated to occur in areas that do not meet federal standards for urban smog. The emissions appear to be concentrated primarily in ten states: Texas, Louisiana, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, Ohio, Indiana, and Oklahoma.

The unreported fugitive emissions of other pollutants are also substantial. This report estimates that the 80 million pounds of unreported VOC emissions from oil refineries contain more then 15 million pounds of unreported toxic air pollutants, including over 1 million pounds of benzene. These unreported toxic air pollutants from refineries are greater than the toxic emissions from most industries in the United States, including the combined toxic emissions of steel mills and blast furnaces.

Controlling these unreported fugitive emissions could be done at minimal cost. Often, all that is required is simply tightening a valve with a wrench. Under the Clean Air Act, leaking valves at oil refineries are supposed to be detected and repaired. If these requirements were met, the emissions reductions would be equivalent to removing the VOC exhaust emissions from five million new cars or eliminating the VOC emissions from 27,500 print shops.

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