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Refining Review—A Look Behind the Fence

One end product of production activity is crude oil. Produced crude gains significantly in value once it is converted into finished products. Like upstream activities, refining involves operation at extreme conditions and application of advanced technology.

David Allan Consultant Houston, Texas, USA Paul E. Davis Chevron Richmond, California, USA
Forhelp in preparation of this article, thanks to Dr. Douglas Harrison, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA.

Drilling and production are only the beginning— complex refining processes, often conducted at extreme temperatures and pressures, are required to turn produced crude oil into the products that power a global society. From multibillion-dollar deepwater platforms to draglines scoopingoil sands from permafrost, oil

producers hold the attention of the public. The crude oil from this effort disappears behind refinery fences at some 658 locations worldwide. These plants range from a Venezuelan facility running 149,000 m3/d [940,000 bbl/d] to locations running less than 160 m3/d [1,000 bbl/d].1 Despite the huge disparity in size, these

Biofuels Other 120 Natural gas liquidsOil sands 100 Crude and condensate Oil sands, 651 billion bbl Recoverable resources

Oil equivalent, million bbl/d


Liquids demand

60 40 20 0 1980

Heavy oil, 434 billion bbl

Conventional oil, 952 billion bbl


2000 Year




> Global liquids supply and demand. Global liquids demand (transportation, industrial, residential, commercial and powergeneration) is expected to rise from the current 13.5 million m3/d [85 million bbl/d] to about 18.3 million m3/d [115 million bbl/d] in 2030 (left). Most of this demand will be satisfied by crude and condensate. As conventional crude reserves become scarce, increasing reliance will be placed on heavy oil to meet liquids demand. Recoverable heavy oil (22°API or less) (right) is nearly 50% ofconventional oil reserves. Contributions from oil sands will grow throughout this period, increasing from about 320,000 m3/d [2 million bbl/d] to nearly 1.1 million m3/d [7 million bbl/d] in 2030. (Global liquids demand adapted with permission from ExxonMobil’s Energy Outlook, 2006, reference 2. Recoverable resources adapted from Meyer and Attanasi, reference 2.)


Oilfield Review

refineries sharea common goal of converting crude oil into valuable and usable finished products. That makes the refining story an important one—economically and technologically. It is also a story of scientific achievement and continuous improvement. Refining is a vital link in the world economy. Rising income levels and growing populations exert continuous pressure on transportation fuels and all chemicalproducts made from oil (previous page).2 This pressure to produce a growing supply of fuels and chemicals coincides with increasingly stringent worldwide environmental standards. To meet these demands, refiners are literally digging deeper into the bottom of each barrel and processing more heavy oils as conventional crude supplies become scarce. This article discusses refining and its evolution fromsimple beginnings using batch equipment to today’s highly automated plants operating around the clock. We will also examine the growing presence of heavy oils in refinery feedstocks and the trend toward achieving nearly zero contaminant levels in transportation fuels.

From Simple Beginnings to a Key Global Industry Although historians have noted the use of petroleum and tar in ancient times, thefirst reported refinery was built in 1860 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, USA, at a cost of $15,000.3 Then, as now, the refiner’s challenge was to convert high-boiling-point viscous crude oil into lowerboiling-point products. Early refiners employed batch rather than continuous systems and used thermal cracking as the conversion process (see “Refining Glossary,” next page). In this type of...
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