What is Xylene, and What Does it Mean for Puget Sound?

And what does it mean for the Bay Area Tesoro refinery where they are “considering” restarting their “reformer”? Funny how they have been doing heavy maintenance for the last two months. Are they using the naphtha from highly volatile Bakken crude oil to make reformate to send to Anacortes?
And if the west coast is using less oil, should we continue to pollute west coast refinery communities at the same rates – merely for oil company profit?
-Editor’s Note


By  () and    December 15, 2014    Sightline Daily

It’s a safe bet that most people have no idea what C6H4(CH3)2 refers to. It’s a chemical compound that is better known—when it is known at all—as xylene, a niche product of oil refining soon to go into development on the shores of Puget Sound. It’s a change that has potential implications for the health of the Salish Sea, for oil trains, and perhaps even for gasoline prices.

Because most people know so little about the product, we thought it would be useful to share a short course on it. So with that, welcome to “Xylene 101.”

What is xylene, exactly?

Let’s get some quick and dirty chemistry out of the way. (It won’t hurt.) Xylene refers to a group of three different isomers (molecules with the same chemical formula but different chemical structures): orthoxylene, metaxylene, and paraxylene, all of which are petrochemicals. In a process known as catalytic reforming, refiners distill petroleum naphtha(chemicals found in partly-refined crude oil) and then convert them into a high octane liquid hydrocarbon called reformate. Traditionally, oil refiners blend reformate with gasoline and jet fuel to increase octane levels, but it can also serve as the feedstock for chemicals like xylene. (Xylenes can also be produced by coal carbonization in the manufacture of petcoke.)

Still with us? Good.

So, what do xylenes mean for Washington?

At its Anacortes Refinery, oil company Tesoro is now investing $400 million on facility upgradesthat will allow it to produce mixed xylene for export to Asia at a rate of 15,000 barrels per day. That represents about 12.5 percent of the refinery’s total crude capacity and about 9 percent of total US xylene production capacity, most of which is currently in Gulf Coast states. In order to produce xylene for export at Anacortes, Tesoro will have to build a new xylene extraction unit capable of recovering xylene from petrochemical feedstock produced by refineries in Washington and California. In anticipation of what may be a large construction project, Tesoro is looking to expand its onsite infrastructure. In fact, Skagit County recently approved Tesoro’s plan to more than double the size of its existing parking lot (from 500 spaces to 1,350 spaces), expanding it 135 feet into a shoreline buffer zone.

According to Tesoro, the global xylene market is growing about 5 percent to 7 percent annually, primarily driven by demand in Asia. In addition, one industry journal notes that “because [xylene] production uses refinery-produced reformate, which is otherwise used for gasoline production, the shift could also ease what refiners consider an oversupplied US west coast gasoline market.”

In other words, Tesoro aims to produce less gasoline on the West Coast in order to free up reformate for xylene production.

Tesoro already produces 32,000 barrels of reformate per day on site at the Anacortes refinery. About half of that supply, along with additional reformate shipped by vessel from its Golden Eagle Refinery near Martinez, California, would be directed towards the production of xylene. Nowadays, both refineries are processing more light Bakken Shale crude oil than they have in the past—delivered principally by trains that have lately exhibited a nasty tendency for exploding—which yields particularly high levels of petroleum naphtha. More naphtha means more reformate, which in turn means more xylene.

The company expects to have the new xylene facility up and running by 2017, but first must seek construction permits from the State. A slow permitting process has discouraged other West Coast oil companies from pursuing similar petrochemical projects; Valero’s vice president of refining operations admitted that “It would be tough to get permits, at the end of the day.”

But what is xylene used for? And should we worry about it?

Xylenes have several primary applications. Paraxylene, often abbreviated to p- xylene, is generally considered the most valuable isomer thanks to its role as the principal precursor chemical in the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is a plastic found in most water bottles and food containers, as well as polyester clothing. Researchers are alsoexamining its potential to leach endocrine disrupters—chemicals that interfere with human hormones. Xylenes can also be used as a solvent in the printing, rubber, paint, and leather industries. In histology, xylenes are used in the dehydration of biological tissue to make it suitable for microscope slides.

Colorless and sweet-smelling liquids, xylenes are flammable and moderately toxic by inhalation or ingestion. They do not dissolve in—and are less dense than—water. The main effect of inhaling xylene vapor is depression of the central nervous system, resulting in symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Long-term exposure may lead to more headaches plus irritability, depression, insomnia, agitation, extreme tiredness, tremors, impaired concentration and short-term memory.

It poses at least some pollution risks. A xylene spill or leak into the soil or ground water could remain for months or more before it breaks down into other chemicals, while a surface water spill would difficult to contain because it is colorless. In fact, the only method for tracking the chemical is via air tests near the spill. That said, a surface spill could potentially be less persistent because xylenes evaporate easily and are broken down by sunlight into other, less-harmful chemicals. That was the case in 2007 when a tanker carrying xylene spilled about 42,000 gallons into the Mississippi River after a collision with a grain barge; within two days, most of the chemicals either evaporated or were flushed downriver.

There is some reason to worry about Tesoro’s ability to handle xylene production appropriately. Sightline’s review of the company finds a checkered history, including persistent problems at the Golden Eagle Refinery in California (which would supply some of the reformate for xylene production), a deadly and much-criticized fire at the Anacortes Refinery, and atroubling pattern of withholding information from the public and regulators.

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Unsafe and Unnecessary Oil Trains Threaten 25 Million Americans

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Voice support for tough emissions regulation at BAAQMD Wed. Dec. 17th

Last month the Air District board directed staff to develop strong proposals to
reduce refinery emissions — an important step forward but far from our goal.
Wednesday’s meeting is our opportunity to stress the critical importance of
rapid adoption of new regulations.


December 17, 9:45 AM
Bay Area Air Quality Management District
930 Ellis, San Francisco, x-st is Van Ness

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BOOM – North America’s Explosive Oil-by-rail Problem

By Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones, Reporting for InsideClimate News – Dec 8, 2014



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What’s going on at Shell? Major sulfur odor!

12/4/14  at  22:14

Giant plumes of smoke/steam/??? that can be seen from Alhambra High School. The pictures with the wide view were taken from Waterbird Park.

At least 5 calls to the BAAQMD hotline from different individuals but the inspector on duty has chosen not to come to Martinez.

Intense sulfur smell surrounds the refinery…it gave me a killer headache. Hey, wait a minute, steam doesn’t smell like rotten eggs!

There was also a mention of an explosion heard earlier in the evening but there is no proof that it was related.

UPDATE: Still spewing plumes, still sulfur smell at 8:15 AM 12/5/14
No morning callback from BAAQMD

shell6 shell5 shell4 Shell3 Shell2 Shell1shell7

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Alberta pipeline spills 60,000 litres of crude oil into muskeg

     The Canadian Press    November 29, 2014

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Government Data Sharpens Focus on Crude-Oil Train Routes

Friday, 28 November 2014 By Isaiah Thompson, ProPublica 



The oil boom underway in North Dakota has delivered jobs to local economies and helped bring the United States to the brink of being a net energy exporter for the first time in generations.

But moving that oil to the few refineries with the capacity to process it is presenting a new danger to towns and cities nationwide — a danger many appear only dimly aware of and are ill-equipped to handle.

Much of North Dakota’s oil is being transported by rail, rather than through pipelines, which are the safest way to move crude. Tank carloads of crude are up 50 percent this year from last. Using rail networks has saved the oil and gas industry the time and capital it takes to build new pipelines, but the trade-off is greater risk: Researchers estimates that trains are three and a half times as likely as pipelines to suffer safety lapses.

Indeed, since 2012, when petroleum crude oil first began moving by rail in large quantities, there have been eight major accidents involving trains carrying crude in North America. In the worst of these incidents, in July, 2013, a train derailed at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec and exploded, killing 47 and burning down a quarter of the town. Six months later, another crude-bearing train derailed and exploded in Casselton, North Dakota, prompting the evacuation of most of the town’s 2,300 residents.

See interactive map of the crude-oil train data.

Continue reading

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All Eyes on Peru

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Rail shipments of oil and petroleum products through October up 13% over year-ago period

672, 118 tank cars of oil and/or petroleum from Jan to October 2014

graph of changes in rail carloads of select commodities, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Association of American Railroads
Note: These carloadings do not include intermodal traffic.

U.S. rail traffic, including carloadings of all commodity types, has increased 4.5% through October 2014 compared to the same period in 2013. Crude oil and petroleum products had the second-biggest increase in carloadings through the first 10 months of this year, with these shipments occurring in parts of the country where there is also strong demand to move coal and grain by rail. In response to shipper concerns over the slow movement of crude oil, coal, grain, ethanol, and propane, federal regulators are closely tracking service among the major U.S. freight railroad companies.

Rail carloadings of oil and petroleum products totaled 672,118 tank cars during January-October 2014, 13.4% higher compared to the same period last year, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). Rising U.S. crude oil production, particularly in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation, where pipeline takeaway capacity is limited in moving the state’s growing oil volumes to market, is one of the main reasons for this increase in rail shipments of petroleum and petroleum products.

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