Feb 22, 2021 16:57 UTC
  • Texas freeze led to release of tons of air pollutants as refineries shut

The largest oil refineries in the United States released tons of air pollutants into the skies over Texas this week, showed figures provided to the state, as one environmental crisis triggered another.

According to data from the Texas Commission on Environment Quality, the spike in air pollutants occurred when petrochemical stations and oil refineries on the Gulf Coast were forced to go offline.

The extreme cold, which left millions of Americans without water in Texas and killed at least two dozen people, sparked “disasters within the disaster” in the country’s energy powerhouse, with authorities blaming each other over a massive failure of energy infrastructure.

The arctic conditions also hit natural gas and electric generation, cutting supplies needed to run the plants.

Shutdowns resulted in the refineries flaring, or burning and releasing gases, to prevent damage to processing units. The skies in eastern Texas were darkened by the flaring, with smoke visible for miles.

“These emissions can dwarf the usual emissions of the refineries by orders of magnitude,” said Jane Williams, Chair of the Sierra Club’s National Clean Air Team, adding that US regulators must adopt new policies to allow “these massive emissions to occur with impunity”.

The five largest refiners emitted nearly 337,000lb of pollutants, including benzene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, according to the data.

Valero Energy said it emitted 78,000 pounds during 24 hours which began on 15 February from its Port Arthur refinery, citing the frigid cold and interruptions in utility services.

Also, Motiva’s Port Arthur, another refinery, released 118,100 pounds between 15 and 18 February, more than three times the excess emissions that it declared to the US Environmental Protection Agency for the whole of 2019.

Meanwhile, Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay Refinery emitted 14,255 pounds over less than five hours on 15 February, which was equal to nearly 10% of its total releases above permitted levels in 2019.