Safety is the top priority for American fuel refineries, in fact it’s the entire point of my job. I travel around the country, and even to other parts of the world, auditing refinery safety systems, specifically those installed in and around units where hydrofluoric acid (HF) is used to produce alkylate—an essential component of the cleanest gasoline refiners can make. Without alkylate, there is no California gasoline, there is no high-octane gasoline and there is no aviation gasoline for small aircraft.
It’s for those reasons that alkylate and HF matter to U.S. consumers, fuel manufacturers and policymakers.
Refineries that use HF accept a great deal of responsibility. It’s each facility’s job to ensure that HF is managed safely, by people with the best possible training who are equipped with a range of proven safety systems and technologies.
Today, some community and activist groups are lobbying federal and state officials to outlaw the use of HF at refineries, even though the refining industry accounts for just a sliver (approximately 2%) of global HF demand. After being contacted by these groups, some policymakers have written letters asking for restrictions to be placed on HF. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), also a target of these lobbying efforts, has even recommended that a costly new regulatory barrier be imposed on refineries that use HF.
These policymakers—most of whom I would venture to say have never visited a refinery—are essentially claiming that safer alkylation technologies exist even though that’s not the case. One alternative—sulfuric acid—isn’t safer, it just poses different risks and is subject to many of the same regulations as HF. Other alternatives are relatively new and used by just a few facilities around the world. They would need to undergo additional years of commercial testing before they could be deemed viable for other facilities.
In the meantime, we can proceed with confidence that HF alkylation can be managed safely. Of all the manufacturing industries that use HF, and there are many, refiners have done more and invested more than any other in the safe management of HF.
In addition to layers of government oversight and regulations covering HF, refiners, years ago, assembled an industry-wide group of process safety experts from around the world, alkylation unit operators, chemical engineers and unit designers to develop comprehensive guidance for the safe, effective management of HF in refinery settings. This guidance is catalogued in the American Petroleum Institute’s Recommended Practice 751 (RP 751).
RP 751 is extensive and exacting. It gets tougher with every revision. Now in its fifth edition, RP 751 covers everything from logistics around HF transportation, specialized workforce training and proven risk mitigation technologies to employ within and around HF alkylation units.
American refineries use a combination of safety tools and systems outlined in RP 751 to keep the alkylation process, plant workers and community neighbors safe. These include installing double-sealed pumps throughout HF units (a major-difference maker added to the 4th edition of RP 751), using acid detecting paint, cloud-sensing lasers, chemical spot detectors, rapid acid dump systems (a critical safety feature), and a range of water walls, curtains, deluges and water cannons capable of knocking any potential escaped HF vapor right out of the air. The point is to ensure there are no single points of failure in the safety systems deployed around HF alkylation units.
Under RP 751, HF-related incidents, which were already very rare at refineries, have become even more so, and to this day, no major HF-related injuries have occurred off-site. Ever.
Before regulating, policymakers would benefit from seeing an HF unit themselves. Observing the layers and layers of complementary safety systems at work around the clock to keep HF well-contained and every person in the refinery and nearby communities safe would certainly change perspectives for the better.
Without this experience, policy suffers.
HF can be managed safely, so replacing the technology is not imperative. In fact, replacing HF would be neither technologically nor economically feasible for refineries with costs in the range of $200 to $850 million per facility. Moving away from this important catalyst wouldn’t rid refineries and neighboring communities of risk, it would simply exchange one set of manageable risks for others and impose significant costs to U.S. fuel producers and U.S. fuel stores at a time when the country clearly needs both.
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