An insider’s view

Do you see that big piece of equipment sort of in the middle of what looks like an unpleasant scene? I have been inside it.



I’m not speaking figuratively here. I don’t even mean I have been inside a similar piece of equipment somewhere else. I have literally been inside that exact piece of equipment.

It was during a turnaround in 2007. For those of you not fluent in oil refinery speak, a turnaround is more or less a tune-up. The unit shuts down for maintenance, and some of us get to work twelve hour night shifts for three months. Don’t worry. I got a few nights off and was still able to see Christina Aguilera during her Back to Basics tour.

During the turnaround I went inside that column on multiple occasions to survey its condition. “Wait a second!” you might say. “You just threw out another refinery term – column.” Good point. Let’s go over just a couple basics before I go on.

That piece of equipment I keep referring to is called a distillation column. Its purpose is to separate stuff. In this case crude oil goes in and streams that will later (after further processing) turn into gasoline, jet and diesel fuel come out. Inside the column there are a series of trays that liquid and vapor pass through. No need to concern yourself with how the actual separation is accomplished. We’ll just blame it on science.

During a turnaround man ways are opened in each tray so that engineers like me can climb from tray to tray.  At the end of the 2007 turnaround, myself and a co-worker were responsible for making sure the man ways were closed back up.

Now I can’t remember exactly how many trays are in that column, but I would guess something on the order of fifty. Every tray has something like four man ways, and more than a few bolts need tightening to close each of those man ways. Needless to say, witnessing the man way closure took awhile.

At one point I laid down on one of the trays. My co-worker was sitting behind me, and my hard hat blocked her view of my face. After a few minutes I heard her quietly chuckling to herself. Then I watched as a digital camera slowly crept into my line of vision, held by her outstretched hands. She thought I had fallen asleep and wanted documentation. So I quietly made a ridiculous face while she took a picture. Her next bout of laughter wasn’t as quiet.

This story has nothing to do with the fire that broke out last Monday. I bring it up only as a reminder of what’s behind all the evilness of Big Oil. People. People like me and my co-worker. Just a couple friends dressed in Tyvek and looking for laughter inside a hunk of metal at 2:00 am. We’re not so different than you are.

I could go on about how warm of a mother she is to her two beautiful daughters, about my own work to help reduce emissions, or about walking out of yoga Monday night to the anti-oil commentary I’ve grown accustomed to living in the Bay Area. But I won’t. Because I honestly understand how easy it is to look at the plume of smoke and judge only the Big part of oil.

I will, however, encourage anyone who read the article linked above to read this one as well. Read it once with an open mind. Consider, even if only temporarily, the possibility that Nigel Hearne’s words are genuine. And if you don’t trust Nigel, trust me.

I am equally saddened by this accident. Maybe even a little bit more.

*Please note that I am not writing, in any way, on behalf of Chevron. Seriously.


16 thoughts on “An insider’s view

  1. Great post! I always wonder about people who are anti-oil, specifically whether they “walk the walk” or just rail on the oil industry because it’s hip to do so.

    As a side note, I’ve always wanted to go inside a distillation column but have never had the chance. All my reactors are just filled with bacteria…

    • Thanks! I suspect that very few, if anyone, truly walks the walk. If for no other reason than that would be next to impossible considering everything that oil is used for. I once saw a car with a bumper sticker that said, “My other car is a bicycle.” I thought that was so ridiculous seeing as how that person’s first car was a car… anyway…

  2. I always wanted to go in one of these big plants wearing hard hats and sterilized uniforms. Alas, wrong type of engineer. 🙂

    Chevron is actually funding one of the largest groups in my department. Something about smart oiling one way or another. Especially in academia, it’s a very fine balance. In the oil for example, you want to do research for power efficiency or emission reduction, but you are being pushed for production maximization and data mining. There are people working in the plants, I agree with you. But they are not the ones making the decisions. And since we have not yet found a better way to fuel our way of life, I think that we should somehow push these people who do make the decisions to other directions as well.

    • Interesting take on the issue… By other directions I’m assuming you mean alternative energy? I agree that some effort should be spent on alternative energy and some effort is spent there. The majority of the effort is still spent on traditional fuels. I’m of the opinion that there won’t be a significant shift towards alternative energy until it’s economic to do so. Legislation can really only do so much. At the end of the day, businesses are driven towards maximizing profits (whether the business is a major oil company or a Mom and Pop shop down the street). I guess what I’m really saying is I think it will take a significant rise in fuel prices before we see serious development of alternative energies. And I think that’s the way it should be. Of course, no one likes to see rising gas prices.

  3. Both of my parents worked for the IRS, so I am familiar to what it’s like to bear the burden of “bad press”. My parents both worked in customer service– helping both regular people and businesses– often finding solutions to their problems. Nigel Hearne’s words ring true, and it’s a good reminder to how much the refinery provides the community. I think a lot of animosity comes from oil spills– like the one in the Gulf Coast where BP was obviously negligent and slow to move to help the disaster– and then consumers have to pay more at the pump only to watch oil companies make record profits. But not every company is BP, and not every refinery is the same.

    • It’s very true that any incident creates some animosity (the BP oil spill and this recent fire both included). It’s so unfortunate for everyone. It gets the anti-oil crowd riled up, and it makes things so much more difficult for the oil companies. Not to mention any actual environmental damage done. It just sucks all around when these things happen.

      Gas prices – such a tricky subject. I sort of don’t have sympathy for the consumer because I see it as a supply and demand thing. And I believe every company, including big ones, have the right to try and maximize profits. I also think it’s going to take a rise in prices before alternative energy becomes economically viable. But I know some people would argue that energy/gasoline is a necessity, like food. If that’s the case than demand isn’t a function of price (I can’t remember the actual economic term for that). But that doesn’t appear to be the case – demand has dropped off as gas prices have risen. Now is there some kind of minimum demand that isn’t a function of price? I don’t know.

  4. My dad worked for “Big Oil” for 35 years. His entire working life for Chevron in fact. Started as an intern in college and retired from a much higher up position. I am quite used to the prejudice of people about oil companies. I don’t really know where I am going here, just that people don’t really seem to have much of an idea about what oil companies are really like.

    • What a small world! I think people forget that oil companies are only the people that work for them. And I think most people are fundamentally good and want to do the right thing. I suppose it’s easier for me to believe this having worked for an oil company.

  5. My Dad worked for Schlumberger for most of his career. Interestingly, his company owned the oil rig that caught fire in the Gulf well before BP did. So, I kind of have the same perspective that you do. I think the general public tends to vastly oversimplify the issues and aren’t willing to look beyond what the media tells them. Kind of like politics.

    Of course, I did my 5th grade science project on where oil comes from and stuck a giant dinosaur on it. It was a joke, I swear.

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