There was a hue and cry after an explosion and fire at a hydrogen refueling station in Norway earlier this month. “Lookit how crazy dangerous that hydrogen stuff is!” the headlines screamed. Well, yes, any explosion or fire is scary. But the takeaway from the MSM was that hydrogen is way too dangerous to ever be considered as a fuel for cars, trucks, and buses.
Oh, really? What to make of the explosion and fire last week at one of America’s oldest and largest petroleum refineries in South Philadelphia? We tend to be blithely indifferent to the hazards posed by gasoline and other petroleum products. All fuels contain enormous amounts of energy which must be carefully controlled in order to make them safe. Even batteries are subject to violent eruptions in some circumstances.
Petroleum refining at the site in South Philadelphia began shortly after the first well in Titusville, Pennsylvania began producing oil in 1869. Over the years, it has grown in size to become of one of the largest refineries in the US, covering more than 1,400 acres along the Schuylkill River.
First owned by Atlantic Refining, the operation was part of Gulf Oil for many years before being acquired by Sunoco. It is now owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which announced after the fire that the facility will be closed. Worker layoffs will begin this week, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. PES officials said they will “position the refinery complex for a sale and restart.”
There are no known parties interested in the property, but environmentalists are already imagining turning this site, which has been known as the biggest polluter in Philadelphia for decades, into a renewable energy hub covered with solar panels and/or wind turbines, providing clean, zero emissions electricity to the residents and businesses of Philadelphia and lots of green energy jobs.
That idea may be a bit premature. After processing petroleum products for 150 years, the site will take years to clean up. Virginia Cain, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, tells the Inquirer an assessment of the site and its environmental issues could take time, especially if there are requests for demolition.
“It would be really hard to say what’s going to be required from the DEP,” Cain said. “An operation of that size probably touches every one of our programs. They’d have to shut down tanks and get them removed. Any existing permits they have would have to be properly closed. Would they have to remove all the piping? We don’t know.”
Christina Simeone, a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, published a research paper last September about the site’s long history of “profound” contamination. “The soil and groundwater at the site are heavily contaminated,” she wrote, noting refinery products like gasoline have infiltrated the groundwater beneath the refinery. Some contaminants such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene may have already spread beyond the borders of the refinery property and may be contaminating a drinking water aquifer used by people in New Jersey.
Alex Bomstein, a senior litigation attorney for the nonprofit Clean Air Council, says the legal issues involved in determining who has to pay what to clean up the site could be complex. “Use of this site goes back to the Civil War era and there are going to be a lot of issues,” he says.
Philly Thrive, a local group that has suggested the refinery has contributed to health issues for city residents for decades called news of the closure “a victory.” It has called on the mayor and the city council to “fund studies into development of community-owned renewable energy on the land, and for city government to commit to a moratorium on new fossil fuel development, starting with the Mayor vetoing the LNG plant which is planned to be built across from PES.”
Gas Prices Increase
One of the immediate effects of the refinery closure will be an increase in the price of gasoline, particularly in the Northeast. According to Oil Price.com, the wholesale price or gasoline rose by almost 6 cents per gallon in that market after the explosion shut down the plant, removing 335,000 barrels a day of fuels from the supply chain. Jitters in oil markets over the availability of Iranian oil and the possibility of armed conflict in the Middle East have also contributed to rising fuel prices.
The takeaway from all this is that all forms of energy have risks associated with them. If they didn’t they would be pretty much useless as fuels. Also, fossil fuels are susceptible to price surges in the event of storms or political tensions. Barring damage from powerful storms, the price of renewable energy tends to be far more stable over time, which helps make power purchase agreements for periods of up to 20 years possible.
The hope of turning the refinery in Philadelphia into a renewable energy park will take a lot of work to become reality. There is so much remediation of the land needed, it is hard to imagine it ever becoming habitable again. One refinery fire is not going to signal the end of the fossil fuel industry in America, but it could be a harbinger of things to come.