Refineries lag behind on pollution control

Emissions from European oil and gas refineries vary widely despite more than a decade of environmental legislation requiring use of the "best available techniques not entailing excessive cost" (BATNEEC), a study for the European Commission has found.1 Trade association Europia refused to cooperate with the study out of concern that the Commission may use it to take legal action.

The study was ordered by the Commission in the light of problems in producing so-called BREF guidance on the best available techniques for the refinery sector in 2001. The process was riven with disagreement between Member States on what constitutes BAT in a number of key areas (ENDS Report 322, pp 47-48 ).

The objective of the study was to verify Member States' compliance with the 1984 Directive on combating air pollution from industrial sites. This required industrial processes such as refineries to use BATNEEC to control emissions to air, and was implemented in the UK through the integrated pollution control (IPC) regime.

The study also assessed progress under the integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) Directive, which introduced the similar concept of BAT and replaced the 1984 Directive.

The study, conducted in 2004 by Petroleum Development Consultants, was based on a survey of 43 oil and gas refineries in almost all EU Member States. For each site, questionnaires were completed either by the operator or the environmental regulator. The response rate was 78%.

The survey gathered data on emissions of key air pollutants, the abatement technology used, and the type and size of plant. Where possible, the authors compared emissions data with BAT levels described in the refinery BREF. The report comments that the quality of the data was often patchy, and comparable data was only available for the period 1997-2003.

Europia, the trade association for the refinery sector, refused to participate in the study because the results might be used by the Commission to take action against Member States for failing to ensure that refineries complied with EU legislation.

Peter Tjan, Europia secretary general, said he objected to the industry being asked to provide a "smoking gun". "The Commission should approach Member States directly for evidence of how each country has implemented environmental legislation," he said.

The study found that all refineries appear to operate within emission limits set in each Member State, but with a wide variation in performance between countries. In general, countries such as Denmark, Germany and Sweden had lower emissions levels than France, Portugal and Spain. The UK's performance is "average".

Overall, the study found "considerable variation" in emissions levels from UK refineries "which seems to have more to do with the level of abatement techniques implemented than refinery size and complexity". The finding raises questions over whether the Environment Agency is pursuing a "level playing field" in its regulation of the sector - UK refineries have been under IPC since 1992.

Although the BREF process failed to agree BAT to control sulphur dioxide, some Member States suggested that concentrations of 800-850mg/m3 or better could be achieved. In 2003, the study says, the seven French refineries in the survey achieved 824-1,700mg/m3 while the eight refineries in Germany achieved 183-680mg/m3. Concentrations at UK refineries - which included BP Coryton, Shell Stanlow and Total Milford Haven - ranged from 500-1,700mg/m3.

The BREF process also failed to agree BAT for oxides of nitrogen. Some Member States suggested concentrations of 200-250mg/m3 were associated with BAT. The study found that German refineries achieve 90-218mg/m3, but performance at UK refineries ranges from 300-600mg/m3.

The study found considerable variation in the abatement techniques used by refineries in different countries, although it was hindered by limited information in responses.

The main conclusion is that some countries need to do more to reduce emissions to ensure that refineries are moving towards BAT. It highlights the potential to replace fuel oil with natural gas.

The study warns that "there has been a relatively slow improvement over the last four years compared to the generally higher levels of improvement (where data is available) through the 1990s showing that the pace of improvement has slackened...The refineries have done what is necessary to meet their legal requirements but are not in a hurry to implement further measures."

The authors recommend that Member States should focus on requiring refineries to employ BAT to improve performance rather than simply achieving prescribed emissions limits.

However, Europia's Peter Tjan maintained that refineries have made "significant progress" in controlling emissions - not least because they are producing cleaner fuels, such as low-sulphur petrol and diesel, which require more intensive refining. He argued that variations in performance are acceptable given variation in local environments.

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