Two Towns, Two Environmental Impacts

March 5, 2018

Imagine driving across western Texas, you’re on a highway surrounded by cattle pastures and oil pumps; you begin to approach a small town. As the commercial district develops in front of you, you realize that the ratio of tanker trucks to passenger cars is growing: it is clear that this is a petroleum refinery town. A dull smog hangs low in the air just overtop a commercial chemical distributor, a faded yellow sign reads, “Hydrochloric Acid for Sale”. Chemical processing plants, pumping stations, transport companies, and petroleum disposal services line the highway through town leading to the refinery. Black soot and red dust cover the hundred or so pick-up trucks in the parking lot.

Petroleum is the pernicious authority in small towns like this one. Void of most other industries, refinery towns are made up of all the processing and other corresponding markets involved with petroleum refining. The discernible effect on the environment is only apparent in the air quality, but there are a lot of environmental concerns associated with fossil fuels that aren’t so obvious.

Now, imagine driving through the plains of central Ohio, there’s a seemingly ordinary farm town between you and the tree line on the horizon. Picture corn on either side of you, every shade of green imaginable whirling by as you drive into town. There is a filling station advertising E85 fuel for sale, next to a biopolymer factory. Flex-Fuel cars driven by men and women on their way to work at the biorefinery are lined up for a block, behind a farmer in a tractor. Unlike the first town that was described, this is a biorefinery town. Farmers living on the acres surrounding this small town make their living by supplying the biorefinery with the feedstocks necessary to produce valuable fuel. The refinery produces byproducts and coproducts along with the fuel, these waste materials are then processed by the many supporting industries in the town in order to make polymer, cleaning solvents, and a number of other chemicals and products.

It might not seem as if these two towns are all that different, after all, they are producing similar goods. The thing that separates these two towns particularly is the impact they are having on the environment. Although both towns are producing fuel and other chemical products, the petroleum refinery town will cause much more damage to the environment. Petroleum products are commonly referred to as “fossil fuels”. We refer to them as such because they are created by heat and pressure being applied to organic matter for a very long time. We only have a finite amount of this petroleum source on Earth, once we use it all, it’s gone. However, a biorefinery can produce the same products using a renewable plant fuel source. Along with increased sustainability, the products created by biorefineries are often biodegradable or less environmentally toxic than their petroleum counterparts. If we want to see more biorefinery towns and less petroleum refineries, we can choose to consume products that are biobased or created with sustainability in mind.