Can an Oil Refinery Refine Its Carbon Footprint?

Operational challenges facing BP oil refinery as emission regulations become more stringent

Oil & Gas at Odds with Climate Change

As organizations increase their focus on addressing climate change and controlling greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, one particular industry surfaces to the top of mind for many: Oil & Gas. According to the EPA, the oil & gas sector is the second-highest contributor of global GHG emissions, at 231 million metric tons of CO2 emitted in 2015, surpassed only by the power plant industry [1]. To address this issue, the US government has imposed stringent emissions-related regulations onto all US refineries. Having faced significant emissions challenges in 2012, BP now hopes to re-position itself as the environmental leader in its refining operations.

Emissions Concerns at Whiting Refinery

Whiting is BP’s largest refinery globally and processes 430,000 barrels of oil daily, which is enough to fuel 1.6 million cars [3]. Amidst a complex refining process, BP has identified two sources that it believes are the primary contributors to GHG emissions:

  1. Flares – In the refining process, flares are a constant source of greenhouse gas emissions. While a critical safety feature, the EPA tightly regulated their efficiency, expecting flares to produce a 98% combustion efficiency to meet the minimum required emissions [2]. See Figure 1 for an illustration of the flaring process.
  1. Leaks – A second source of GHG emissions is gaseous leaks throughout the entire refinery process. Leaks are of particular concern to refineries because gases more toxic than CO2, such as methane or benzene, are often released into the environment through leaks [2].
Figure 1. In a refining process, flares are used as a safety design, to alleviate pressurized gas by burning and releasing it into the air. [11]
Figure 1. In a refining process, flares are used as a safety design, to alleviate pressurized gas by burning and releasing it into the air. [11]









Emissions Impact on BP

Over the past decade, EPA regulations on emissions control have significantly impacted Whiting Refinery’s business operations. In 2012, the EPA fined Whiting $8 million for violating a 2001 legal agreement based on previous pollution problems at the plant. Specifically, federal regulators stated that Whiting repeatedly exceeded emissions limits on its flares, causing toxic pollutants to be released into the atmosphere. Following this penalty, the EPA additionally required BP to invest in a $400 million project to implement new pollution controls on its flares, with the expectation that these controls would reduce the refinery’s flare emissions by 90% [10]. Lastly, the EPA tasked BP with performing a $9.5 million emissions study on the refinery process to determine areas for future improvement, as well as a $2 million monitoring system to record future emissions data (accessible to public) [7]. Altogether, BP Whiting faced a substantial financial implication of nearly $420 million, driven by EPA regulations on emissions control. Aside from a significant financial cost, the EPA regulations also led to operational changes in BP’s refining strategy.

Where to next?

Following this incident, BP shifted its downstream strategy to become more proactive at identifying projects to further reduce emissions [8]. While Whiting has invested heavily in reducing its GHG emissions over the past five years, there are still significant improvements that need to be made. In particular, BP will need to achieve the EPA’s goal of having the oil and gas sector reduce GHG emissions by 40-45% by 2025 [6]. While Figure 2 illustrates a 20% reduction so far, BP will still need to target an additional 20-25% over the next decade.

Figure 2. Metric Tons of CO2e for BP 2011 – 2015. [4]
Figure 2. Metric Tons of CO2e for BP 2011 – 2015. [4]








Over the next nine years, Whiting plans to undergo significant operational changes in order to stay ahead of EPA emissions regulations. For example, three months ago, the refinery announced the launch of a new multimillion-dollar project that would reduce harmful chemical pollutants from its process, and thus decrease GHG emissions [5].

Additional steps for the future

In addition to the emissions improvement projects mentioned above, I believe BP Whiting should communicate a clear messaging both internally and externally around its environmental goals. Additionally, the refinery could explore the following opportunities:

  • Partnerships with universities to research future process improvement technologies that can be implemented down the line
  • Add performance metrics for emissions leakage, so refining teams and management are held accountable for emissions reduction
  • Aggregate emissions data globally and leverage best practices to develop projects with the most significant impact in emissions reduction

Given that BP’s business model consists of a commitment to the environment, specifically stated as “no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment” [3], I think these initiatives will align well with its overall messaging on emissions reduction and operating strategy.


(Word Count: 760)



  1. “Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program.” Environmental Protection Agency, October 2016.
  2. “BP Whiting Settlement (Flaring).” Environmental Protection Agency, January 2016.
  3. “Whiting Refinery.” BP Global.
  4. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” BP Global.
  5. Pete, J.S. “BP Investing Hundreds of Millions of Dollars in Whiting Refinery.”TCA Regional News, September 2016.
  6. “EPA’s Air Rules for the Oil & Gas Industry.” Environmental Protection Agency.
  7. “EPA and BP Agree on Penalties at Whiting Refinery.”Oil Spill Intelligence Report (2016): 4. ProQuest.
  8. “The Energy Challenge and Climate Change.” BP Sustainability Report,
  9. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data.” Environmental Protection Agency.
  10. Hawthorne, M. “BP’s Whiting Refinery Agrees to Cut Air Pollution.” Chicago Tribune, May 2012.
  11. Flare Image.




Gambling with Climate Change: Procter & Gamble

Student comments on Can an Oil Refinery Refine Its Carbon Footprint?

  1. Excellent article on emissions issues faced by BP. It is promising to read that BP is taking a more proactive approach to emissions reductions. Being that BP has caused a fair share damage to the environment through oil spills and excessive emissions levels, I question if BP is not fully tackling their environmental impact because they have enough income to cover any fines that they may face. Does BP consider the tradeoff between investing in preventative measures versus the potential costs if the company were to be fined? From a moral standpoint, I truly hope this is not the case but it is completely possible that BP has analyzed this tradeoff before.

    I am also interested to see how BP is leveraging data and analytics to gain more insights into the emissions impact on the environment. How is BP using sensors and the data collected to become smarter about their operations from an emissions standpoint? And is BP working with other companies, such as the companies that supply the materials to build and maintain its refineries, to determine ways to reduce the leakage of gases? I am excited to see which changes BP will implement both internally and externally to reduce its emissions footprint.

  2. I agree that it makes sense for BP to explore partnering with universities to think about technologies of the future but I wonder if those research efforts will be in vain. Given how ultra-competitive the industry is and how the low oil price environment might not disappear, I am curious about how much capital BP realistically can allocate toward new technologies even down the line.

    It exited the solar business in 2013 amidst fierce competition ( and then exited the cellulosic ethanol business in 2015 ( amidst similarly difficult industry conditions. I would argue that the environment now and the future is going to be even more challenging than it was back then. It seems like it might be a difficult time to start thinking about investments for the future outside of their core business. That’s why I think your 2nd and 3rd recommendations make a lot of sense.

  3. Great article. I agree that the company should be more aligned with their messaging both internally and externally. Also, pertaining to your suggestions, I did some quick research and found an article that suggested that partnerships between oil company’s and university are not always productive when the research university does not have full control over their work ( Although there are reasons why the partnership might not produce material results, the partnership still has the ability to produce great outcomes if the two parties can agree on the terms, and the university is allowed to freely develop creative solutions.
    Additionally, I completely agree that the company should add more instrumentation and technology to monitor leakages at the plant. Having worked at a chemical plant, I know that leaks are a big issue that are hard to detect and there are numerous technological advancements to address this issue ( Moreover, I agree that as the technology for measuring leaks increase, so should the requirements for monitoring and addressing leak issues be increased.

Leave a comment