Emission Trends in Petroleum Refineries

Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP) emissions reported by the refineries sector remained relatively consistent from 2011 to 2019, followed by a significant drop of nearly 10% in reported emissions in 2020 due to reduced demand during COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. A rebound in production and associated emissions began in 2021, with emissions increasing by nearly 3% to 164.9 MMT CO2e from the record low emissions reported to the GHGRP in 2020.

Historically, refinery emissions trends depend on three factors: the number of operating refineries, the operable capacity, and the production slate. With respect to the number of reporting facilities, the count has decreased from 150 to 137 over the last decade because some refineries closed and a few very small refineries are no longer required to report. [1] Notably, in 2021, a large refinery in Belle Chase, Louisiana operated by Phillips 66 closed due to weather related effects of Hurricane Ida while two new smaller refineries in Texas and California came online. [2] The number of refineries reporting to the GHGRP is expected to continue to decrease in the next few years. [2]

With respect to operable capacity, we found that overall operable capacity (measured in thousand barrels per calendar day) has increased by 2% over the last decade. [3] Over the last two years, however, there has been a decrease in operable capacity of nearly 4%. So, while the decades-long trend demonstrates that the expanded production capacity at existing and new refineries more than offsets production declines from refinery closures, the trend may be turning toward a sustained nationwide decline in operating capacity as a result of the expected shift toward electric vehicles and use of renewable fuels.

Finally, finished motor gasoline, distillate fuel oil, and jet fuel are the predominant fuels produced by refineries. During 2020, changes to refinery production slates were observed that are likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, the demand for transportation fuels, specifically finished motor gasoline and jet fuel, significantly decreased in 2020. As a consequence of the decreased production of finished motor gasoline and jet fuel, we observed an increase in normalized emissions (i.e., metric tons CO2e per gross input to refineries in thousand barrels per day) in 2020 demonstrating production inefficiencies. [3] In 2021, the production of finished motor gasoline (including motor gasoline blend components) and kerosene jet fuel increased by 7% and 28%, respectively. [4, 5] Distillate oil production remained flat compared to 2020, decreasing by 2%. [4] These overall changes in demand resulted in a net 6% increase in refinery throughput in 2021 (measured as gross input to refineries in thousand barrels per day) as compared to 2020. [3] The normalized emissions in 2021 are consistent with pre-pandemic values indicating adjustment and stabilization of production processes in response to market conditions.

[1]  40 CFR §98.2(i)(1) and (2) describe provisions under which a facility may discontinue reporting.

[2] U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. refinery capacity decreased during 2021 for second consecutive year (accessed September 19, 2022) at: https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=52939.

[3]  U.S. Energy Information Administration, Refinery Utilization and Capacity (accessed September 19, 2022) at: http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_pnp_unc_dcu_nus_a.htm.

[4] U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Refinery Net Production (accessed September 19, 2022) at: http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_pnp_refp2_dc_nus_mbbl_a.htm.

[5]  U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Refinery Net Inputs (accessed September 28, 2022) at: https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_pnp_inpt2_dc_nus_mbbl_a.htm.

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