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Refined Refinery? ConocoPhillips in Billings, MT

ConocoPhillips in Billing, MTBillings, MT plays host to three petroleum refineries, which fuel the local economy. I was fortunate to receive an invitation from the American Petroleum Institute to come out as their guest and tour the ConocoPhillips refinery and meet a few of the local citizens to hear their thoughts on big oil.

Out of the three refineries located in Billings, one has a very unique story and position in the world of refining. The ConocoPhillips refinery is the first Energy Star certified refinery in the world (two years in a row). Not bad for an industry that is not highly regarded in public opinion given the current prices we are paying at the pump, but sustainability and environmental factors actually rank very high on the list of priorities for this tightly run operation.

Not only is ConocoPhillips the most energy efficient and least polluting out of the three, it was also the first to form a Citizen’s Advisory Council comprised of community members unafraid to speak up about their concerns with having a refinery located in town – the most prevalent, of course, being air quality control.

Stepping off of the plane (from LA granted), the air in Montana is crisp and clear, which is amazing given the fact that there are three refineries that are emitting sulfur and CO2 among other elements into the air. However, even walking around the Conoco plant, it was hard to smell any evidence of “refining” going on. The community members that I got to speak with (including Stella of local Stella’s Kitchen and Bakery fame) excessively praised the efforts of the Conoco team for this reason and for the EPA air quality reports (which I’ll post on later) showing ConocoPhillips leading the pack in terms of lowest amounts of Sulfur Dioxide and other irritants.

This plant, the smallest of the ConocoPhillips refineries, sits on 200 acres in very close proximity to the town – in fact, when it was built in 1949 it sat right in one of the neighborhoods until it began acquiring the surrounding property to build out a larger campus. What this refinery has been able to do that the others have not, is reach out to the citizens and develop an “open door” relationship with them that has lasted nearly 20 years. The steps that they have taken and the positive economic impact are clearly well received within the tiny community.

However, where the refinery team seems to reach an impasse is where to go from here – how do we get beyond petroleum. You can’t run biofuels through existing pipelines (unless maybe it’s LS9), and replacing the pipelines would be a nightmare. They are a heavy crude production facility though, and they do have the ability to process heavy crude as well as the oil from tar sands in Canada, where all of their crude currently comes in from. Of course, the energy used to produce oil from tar sands is astounding, but it’s certainly open for discussion.

At the end of the day, we are still a petroleum-dependent society, and while we are seeking for alternatives to fuel our energy needs, it’s nice to see examples of big oil companies with good town/gown relationships making strides to reduce their environmental impact. It would be nice if this weren’t the only shining example of that.

I’ll have more information from the tour in the coming weeks!

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When she isn't writing or in the library, this tech savvy ecophile can usually be found glued to her mobile or macbook ogling the latest gadgets, scouting the newest designs, traveling or out enjoying the Colorado terrain. Courtney holds two masters degrees in Psychology and Communications and received her BA from Vanderbilt University in Psychology and English. She recently relocated from Los Angeles to Denver, CO where she is pursuing her PhD in Family and Child Psychology.


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