Downstream Myths Debunked: The thoughts of an Arts Graduate
Written by Emma Shewell, Research Analyst, World Refining Association
Published on 23rd June 2020
Just over three months ago, I walked in to my first job as a researcher for the Oil and Gas Council, full of enthusiasm but with little knowledge on the industry I was entering. Being an Arts student, this knowledge extended as far as discussions of political risk in distant oil-producing nations. It certainly did not include an understanding of terms such as hydro-cracking, feedstock, or delayed coking.
Furthermore, as a climate change enthusiast I did have a voice in the back of my head questioning my moral compass. Many with little industry knowledge could admit to associating the words ‘oil and gas’ with smoking refinery columns and dark oil spills, images that prove difficult to align with a green ideology.
However, after three months of research for the World Refining Association, I can now say with confidence that not only do I know what a delayed coker is, but I see with better clarity the multi-faceted nature of the oil and gas production process, and how deeply our lives depend on this industry. While there is so much yet to learn, I have reduced these three months into three key take-aways that have changed the way I view the oil and gas industry:
Crude Oil ≠ Gasoline
To industry-insiders (and undoubtedly to many average people on the street) this fact is more basic general knowledge than research revelation. However, I must admit to never having come to such a realization until my first refining training session. I was not fully cognizant of the multi-million dollar plants and processes required before the crude pulled from the ground can be pumped into the tank of my car.
The differentiation between crude oil/natural gas and their products has been key to my understanding. It illuminated not only that oil and gas production is a multi-faceted process, but also that gasoline and diesel are not the sole fruits of this industry.
In fact, Crude Oil = Many, Many Things
After further training and the introduction of the phrase ‘petrochemical plant’ to my vocabulary, my understanding of crude refining began to expand beyond the bounds of fuel production.
Flashbacks of high-school chemistry classes and countless C-H diagrams were prompted by terms such as ‘ethylene’ and ‘propylene’. It came to my attention that if you bring your lunch to work in a Tupperware, you are using a refined gas product. When you hand a box of crayons to your child to keep them busy, you are using paraffin wax extracted from virgin light naphtha, another refined product. When you hop in the car to head to the beach, not only are you using the gasoline pumped into your tank, but you drive on an asphalt road, make sand castles with plastic buckets and spades, and later revive your burnt skin with moisturizer – all of which likely contain crude oil by-products.
Not only does this industry power transport and infrastructure, it powers our lives. In our industrialised society almost nothing can be produced without it and our dependency on oil and gas extends further than I previously comprehended.
The energy transition ≠ bio-fuels and renewables (alone)
The third revelation circles back to my enthusiasm for all things green. Given that power and fuels do constitute a large proportion of refining output, it is understandable that much of the energy transition is focused on greening these products. Bio-fuel, wind farms and solar power are just a few of the buzzwords constantly encountered in discussions of transitioning from an ‘oil and gas’ to an ‘energy’ industry. However, after contemplating the extent of our dependency on refined products as a whole, I have begun to see that the energy transition must be as multi-faceted as the industry itself.
By all strict definitions, an energy transition (i.e. changing the way we power our houses, cars and appliances) will require new fuels and new sources of power. However, these are not the only aspects of our daily existence that rely on oil and gas. There are a host of other products that must be re-invented.
At first, all of these revelations prove to be quite overwhelming. There is so much work to be done and seemingly little time in which to do it. However, the proverbial ball is rolling undeniably, and I am encouraged as I learn more about the innovation already taking place. Working primarily in the refining space, I have read about the carbon capture initiatives of organisations such as Equinor and the Port of Rotterdam. I have researched groups the likes of UK-based Recycling Technologies, who are developing plastic waste recycling technologies with exciting prospects for movement towards a circular economy. I was impressed to read that in 2020, oil refiner Neste Corp. of Finland has ranked third on the Corporate Knights’ Global 100 list of the world’s most sustainable corporations. There may be a long road ahead but these organisations are proving that innovation is possible, it is happening, and can only improve as time goes on.
And so, where does this leave the green Arts graduate? After only three months in oil and gas, I can safely describe myself as an industry agnostic – grateful for the comfortable life it has helped me to lead, accepting of the important place it holds in powering our society, but looking forward to the transformation that lies ahead. If there were ever a time to start building a career in oil and gas, I am glad my time is now.
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