Fact Sheet: Pollution Prevention: Strategies for Petroleum Refining

Center For Hazardous Materials Research (CHMR)

The pollution prevention practices described here have been developed specifically for the petroleum refining industry and have been implemented in other petroleum refining facilities.

What is pollution prevention?

Pollution prevention is the reduction or elimination of discharges or emissions to the environment. This includes all pollution: hazardous and non-hazardous, regulated and unregulated, across all media, and from all sources. Pollution prevention can be accomplished by reducing the generation of wastes at their source (source reduction) or by using, reusing or reclaiming wastes once they are generated (environmentally sound recycling).

Each of the pollution prevention practices described in this fact sheet is an extension of the simple but powerful idea that it makes far more sense to eliminate the generation of waste than to develop complex and costly treatment schemes once it has been generated.

Why practice pollution prevention?

Pollution prevention is good business. While most pollution control strategies cost money, pollution prevention has saved many firms thousands of dollars in treatment and disposal costs alone.

Many companies have already discovered the tremendous benefits of pollution prevention. The 3M Co.'s "Pollution Prevention Pays"

Program has eliminated the annual generation of more than 500,000 tons of pollutants. Cumulative savings since the program began in 1975 are estimated at $426 million.

Smaller companies can also benefit. One firm reduced its hazardous waste disposal costs by 74% and decreased raw material costs by 16%.

By reducing or eliminating wastes a firm can:

How do we get started?

A systematic approach will produce better results than piecemeal efforts. An essential first step is a comprehensive waste audit. The waste audit should systematically evaluate opportunities for improved operating procedures, process modifications, process redesign and recycling.

To conduct a waste audit, follow these steps:

Will pollution prevention work in petroleum refining?

Petroleum refinery wastes result from processes designed to remove naturally occurring contaminants in the crude oil, including water, sulfur, nitrogen and heavy metals. According to Department of Commerce figures in 1988, the petroleum refining industry spent approximately $2 billion on pollution control.

These costs provide petroleum refiners with tremendous incentive to find ways to reduce the generation of waste. The pollution prevention practices described here have been developed specifically for the petroleum refining industry and have been implemented in other petroleum refining facilities.

Setting up a pollution prevention program does not require exotic or expensive technologies. Some of the most effective techniques are simple and inexpensive. Others require significant capital expenditures, however many provide a return on that investment.

Improved Operating Procedures

Good operating procedures rely not on new technological developments, but on human adaptability. Small changes in personnel practices, housekeeping, inventory control, waste stream segregation, material handling and scheduling improvements, spill and leak prevention and preventive maintenance can mean big waste reductions. Some examples in petroleum refineries include:

Conserve water. Reuse rinse waters if possible. Reduce equipment cleaning frequency where beneficial in reducing net waste generation.


Recycling is the use, reuse or reclamation of a waste after it is generated. At present the petroleum industry is focusing on recycling and reuse as the best opportunities for pollution prevention. Some examples are:

Process Modifications

The petroleum industry requires very large, capital intensive process equipment. Expected lifetimes of process equipment are measured in decades. This limits economic incentives to make capital intensive process modifications to reduce wastes generation. However, some process modifications do reduce waste generation. They include the following:

Process Redesign

Petroleum engineers have done a good job of designing and modifying processes and technologies to recover product and unconverted raw materials. In the past, they pursued this strategy to the point that the cost of further recovery could not be justified.

Now the costs of end-of-pipe treatment and disposal have made source reduction a good investment. Greater reductions are possible when process engineers trained in pollution prevention plan to reduce waste at the design stage. Designs that reduce waste can also reduce energy consumption and maintenance costs.

This fact sheet should only be considered an introduction to pollution prevention. Since new ideas are always being developed, it cannot include every existing pollution prevention practice, Mention of a specific practice should not be considered an unqualified endorsement, and not every practice is suitable for every facility.

Who's going to do it?

Pollution prevention requires a new attitude about pollution control. Traditional thinking places all the responsibility on a few environmental experts in charge of treatment. The new focus makes pollution prevention everyone's responsibility. Preventing pollution may be a new role for production-oriented managers and workers, but their cooperation is crucial. It will be the workers themselves who must make pollution prevention succeed in the workplace.

Management commitment and employee participation are vital to a successful pollution prevention program. Management can demonstrate its commitment to pollution prevention and encourage employee participation by:

Additional Publications

  1. Hazardous Waste Minimization Manual for Small Quantity Generators, Second Edition, Center for Hazardous Materials Research, 320 William Pitt Way, Pittsburgh, PA 15238, 1989. (Call 800-334-CHMR)

  2. Waste Minimization-Issues and Options, Vols. 1, 2, and 3, EPA 530-SW-86-04 1, October 1986. (Available from NTIS, Call 703-4874600)

  3. Profit From Pollution Prevention, Monica Campbell and William Glenn, Pollution Probe Foundation, 12 Madison Avenue, Toronto, Canada, M5R 2S 1, 1982.

  4. Hazardous Waste Minimization Industrial Overviews, Edited by Harry M. Freeman. JAPCA Reprint Series RS-14,1989, Air & Waste Management Association, P.O. Box 2861, Pittsburgh, PA 15230. (Call 412-232-3444)

  5. Compendium of Waste Minimization Practices, American Petroleum Institute, 1220 L. Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005 (Call API Publications: 202-682-8375)

Further Pollution Prevention Information

Center for Hazardous Materials Research (CHMR)
320 Willis Pitt Way
Pittsburgh, PA 15238
(800) 334-CHMR
(412) 826-5320

James Hemby
Pollution Prevention Program
U.S. EPA Region III
841 Chestnut Building
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 597-9800

Greg Harder
Division of Waste Minimization and Planning
PA Department of Environmental Resources
PO Box 2063
Harrisburg, PA 17120
(717) 787-7382

American Petroleum Institute
1220 L. Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 682-8000

National Petroleum Refiners Association
1899 L. Street, N.W. Suite 1000
Washington, D.C. 20036
(202) 457-0480

The Center for Hazardous Materials Research (CHMR) is a non-profit subsidiary of the University of Pittsburgh Trust, and is a non-regulatory organization. Its mission is to assist in developing and implementing practical solutions to the technical, environmental, economic, and health problems associated with hazardous and solid waste. For more information on this and other CHMR publications call (800) 334-CHMR

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Last Updated: January 9, 1996