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Climate change 101: Impact on refiners

08.01.2011  |  Gentry, J. C.,  GTC Technology US LLC, Houston, Texas

Here’s a different viewpoint on global warming


In some industrialized countries, there is a widespread view that greenhouse gases produced from burning fossil fuels will lead to ever increasing global atmospheric temperature changes. The scientific case for man-made global warming or climate change is not proven. If unchecked, global-warming advocates will burden the global economy with costly regulations on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, penalties on fuel consumption, premature introduction of unproven and uneconomical alternative energy schemes, and food shortages due to mandated use of bio-based fuels. The outcome will result in irreversible damages to many manufacturing industries and a decline in the global standard of living.

Refiners and petrochemical operators should be aware of the political trends in the industry and prepare to make prudent investments into cost-effective energy reduction projects. Likewise, these industry operators have a responsibility to maintain the low level of harmful emissions and even reduce these to further enhance our collective physical well-being. However, industrial participants should also rightly resist the promptings to accept unreasonable controls over consumption of fossil fuels based on spurious data and contrived emotion.


This present article intends to open the debate on the phenomenon of global climate change, which reportedly has been closed by its proponents and a compliant media. The goal is to present a commonsense viewpoint based on practical scientific observations and how the evidence is treated. What mankind is striving to control through manipulating energy consumption, falls short of the established natural balance in play since earth’s creation.

Most published articles on climate change are based on drama and hype, with a hint of scientific assertion to appear plausible. Often, there is some connection suggested to a recent catastrophic weather event. Fig. 1 is an article published in 1922 that was emblematic of the news about this topic. Most climate change articles are full of clear inferences to glaring problems that have been caused by humans, which can supposedly be corrected with some collective action.

  Fig. 1. “The Changing
  Arctic” by George Nicolas. 

During the 1970s, there was a fear that the world was headed toward a period of global cooling and that there needed to be drastic action to avert this impending disaster. Scenes of frigid conditions and cold-inspired deaths were portrayed, even though the year-round cooling was expected to be only 1°C–2°C below the prevailing norm (Fig. 2). The technical explanation offered for the cooling effect was radiation back into the solar energy space due to soot particles in earth’s upper atmosphere.

  Fig. 2. December 1979—
  Public concern that the earth
  was cooling and lifestyle
  changes needed to be made. 

In the 1980s, the concern shifted toward global warming due to the postulated greenhouse effect from certain atmospheric gases (Fig. 3). Data were gathered and models constructed to prove that this period in time was different than previous history, because mankind was consuming much higher quantities of fossil fuels, and the resultant CO2 released from this combustion was the culprit behind pervasively rising global temperatures.

  Fig. 3. The sentiment
  changed, and concern swung
  toward the need to combat

Coincident with this viewpoint was a series of ulterior motives from an odd mix of compatriots, designed to promote one agenda or another, usually for social adjustment or personal profit. These included those who truly believed we were headed toward a manmade disaster because of an uncontrollable increase in temperatures; those who resented the Western world’s dependence on imported energy from politically unstable regions of the world; those who object to the byproducts of oil consumption and environmental pollution; and those who want to reallocate some of the resources away from the industrialized world toward developing countries. The common element linking these agendas was CO2.

During the 2000s, evidence of global warming failed to match the predictions, so a new phraseology, Global Climate Change was introduced. This term was deliberately broad so that one could be correct when predicting temperature increases or temperature decreases; or climate shifts from one region to another. Most recently, in 2010, a new term was introduced—“Global Climate Disruption” (Fig. 4). This latest designation lends itself to a negative connotation about any changes in weather patterns, to more conveniently promote reductions in energy consumption and to justify governmental intervention into this policy.

  Fig. 4. Current phrasing for
  all actual or potential climate
  issues: warmer, wetter,
  drier, more eventful, less

In exchange for favorable coverage, media outlets have conveyed specific choreographed messages reporting all the extremes in nature as if these had not been happening throughout earth’s history. Regional droughts in Africa, flooding in Southeast Asia, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, and the polar bears stranded on a broken iceberg have all been blamed on global climate change (Fig. 5). In addition, well-known politicians and celebrities have taken sides to pronounce global climate change upon us. Al Gore for example, has effectively secured the media’s attention, persuaded some in the public and even won the Academy Award and other recognitions for his support of global warming (Fig. 6). 

  Fig. 5.  Is this polar bear in
  peril or simply searching for
  food from an advantage

  Fig. 6. Global warming proponents include former
  Vice President Al Gore. 

Some scientists have claimed to universally accept the fact of global warming, further eroding the opportunity for debate. Is global climate change the most pressing problem facing mankind, which requires intergovernmental cooperation to avoid disaster?

To understand the problem, let’s look at the primary issues:
• Does the phenomenon of global warming exist? Is there global climate change?
• If so, is industrial activity the primary factor? Is CO2 the main proxy for changing global temperatures?
• Is it reasonable, or even possible, to shift global climate patterns by changing human activity?
• Does it make any difference in any case?

In general, the public has been misled. The public is accepting things “green,” but the transforming policy discussions center on CO2. Even the word green is confusing. Today’s “green” is anything one purports to be natural or environmentally benign. The definition is set by the marketer or promoter of a particular good, practice or political agenda. Often, what is designated “green” is not helpful to society or the environment.

Biofuels are reported to be “green,” (Fig. 7) but the raw material for ethanol or biodiesel is a food source for man or animals. Furthermore, the life cycle on carbon emissions is only marginally lower than traditional fossil fuels. Biofuels require large areas of land, water and fertilizers that compete for these alternative resources. Except in very few cases, biofuels are never economical to use for mass consumption in transportation or power generation compared to traditional fuels.

  Fig. 7. Are biofuels “green”? 

Energy saving light bulbs are an icon of “greenness” (Fig. 8). The present bulb prices are 20 times higher than conventional bulbs. The economic payback on replacing light bulbs is much longer than other actions we could take for saving energy. The light bulbs also contain mercury. Will mercury leakage from bulb disposal become the next environmental disaster? Is the energy savings by using the light bulbs more valuable than the capital which could be deployed toward economically properous enterprises or social benefits?

  Fig. 8. Make more prudent
  use of resources. 

Chemical production plants and oil refineries are generally not considered “green.” But even in this sector, the manufacturers have set up a system to make comparisons and denote a particular practice or site to be “green,” usually for the purpose of obtaining operating permits.

What is “green”?

There are many shades of green, without a universal standard. In truth, “green” should relate to the practice of photosynthesis, which produces the characteristic color during the conversion of CO2 and light into plant growth with oxygen (O2) as a byproduct. This symbiosis of O2 generation by plant life and CO2 by animal life is the fundamental core of our physical existence. What has happened in the last three decades is that CO2 has been demonized as the culprit for all disagreeable climate patterns within the world. Terms such as carbon footprint, cap and trade and greenhouse effect conjure images of worldwide disaster, with CO2 as the root cause.

What is CO2?

By definition, CO2 (Fig. 9) is a heavy colorless gas that does not support combustion; is formed especially in animal respiration and in the decay of combustion of animal and vegetable matter; is absorbed from the air by plants in photosynthesis; and is used as a food additive in the carbonation of beverages. CO2 is a nontoxic trace component in the atmosphere and a natural part of the biosphere.

  Fig. 9. CO2—Focus of

Let’s open up to the real debate to untangle the various motives and agendas from the scientific substance at hand. There is consensus based on evidence that the earth’s temperature has increased approximately 1°C over the last 100 years; and that CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased from approximately 280 ppm in the middle of the last century to 390 ppm today. The temperature measurements on land vs. water, upper atmosphere vs. lower atmosphere, polar vs. tropical, etc., have a natural variation and range of accuracy. Beyond this, there is great divergence of opinion about the causes of these deviations and resultant effect on mankind.

Regarding temperature, there has been at least three (100+ year) periods in history where global temperatures were higher than they are today (Fig. 10). This includes the 13th century, when the Vikings colonized Greenland. Woodlands once covered the tundra region in Northern Canada, and animal life patterns were different than today. During this time, man-made CO2 was largely absent from the equation. The historical temperature record can also be questioned, since modern instruments for measuring temperature on a consistent, global scale did not exist prior to the past 100 years. Today, many official measurement sites are compromised by the heat island effect, located in urban areas with street paving or other artificial heat sources.

  Fig. 10. European climate change over the last 1,000

Global temperature correlations have been made with CO2 and other parameters (Fig. 11). Sometimes the CO2 shows a direct correlation, and other times not. Certainly, there are many different factors that influence global temperature. The most direct correlation seems to be solar activity. The sun is overwhelmingly the largest energy and heat source to our environment. Evidence also shows on a macro scale that CO2 rises after global temperature increases, because of the lower solubility of CO2 in the ocean storehouse at elevated temperatures (Fig. 12).

  Fig. 11. Earth’s temperature does not correlate with
  CO2 concentration. 

  Fig. 12. Temperature correlates with the Sun,
  not hydrocarbon usage. 

Concerning the greenhouse phenomenon, water vapor is actually the dominant component, comprising 95% of greenhouse gases (Fig. 13). CO2 is a small portion of the greenhouse gas mixture; and anthropogenic-derived CO2 is an even smaller portion. The mere validity of the greenhouse effect as a significant factor in explaining incremental global temperature increases is questionable. Considering the multiple contributing factors that affect global temperature, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have virtually no influence. The blame is simply on the wrong target.

  Fig. 13. CO2 is the trace
  component in the

Kyoto, Bali, Copenhagen and Cancun have been sites of international meetings designed to promote the premise of CO2-based global warming and to compel global nations to make commitments to reduce the greenhouse gases. The pathways to this opinion seems logical enough, including:
• Observation that the earth is getting warmer
• Scientists gathering and studying data
• Consequences of the global warming progression being presented
• Attempt to garner and capture public support for changes that need to be made.

However, there are fundamental flaws in these points. Before making a rational decision about man-made global warming, one must use common sense and understand all the facts:

1. Modern meteorological science has only existed for the last 100 years (Fig. 14). Therefore, historical data on global temperatures are largely based on indirect evidence and adjusting the various input sources to a common basis. Using these data, the variance in global temperatures is 1°C–2°C over extended time periods. The global average today is approximately 1°C above the 1,000-year normal average.

  Fig. 14. Problem:
  Comingling of political
  objectives with the scientific

2. Scientists have made a tremendous effort to gather data related to global temperature changes and to develop climate models that encompass the data and indicate cause and effect. The models include the famous hockey-stick prediction of a sharp, uncontrollable increase in global temperature. All the models are wrong, at least in their predictions on account of CO2 (Fig. 15). In 2010, the Earth’s global temperature was 0.62°C lower than in 1998; and CO2 increased 20 wppm in the same period. No models predicted the 2000–2010 downward trend in temperatures. In contrast, long-term temperature trends closely follow solar activity. Climate scientists do not know the full extent of all the contributing factors to global climate.

  Fig. 15. Climate models are inadequate.  

3. The consequences of global warming are presented as polar caps melting, with a rising sea level; regional droughts in Africa, causing wars and mass dislocations of the population; increased hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico and typhoons in Southeast Asia; polluted air over cities; and polar bears driven out of their natural existence. Does CO2 cause smog, or is this smog rather caused by soot, particles and nitrogen oxides (NOx)? Are hurricanes predictable? Is the Darfur conflict in Sudan a result of higher temperatures across the African plains? Are polar bears not able to adapt to a changing environment; and are they in decline at all?

4. All marketing campaigns focus on changing the perception about a product or an issue to gain favorable support. The campaign in favor of man-made global warming is no different. We are presented with images of starving children, hurricane damage and polluted cities. Supporting data are selectively shown, or even manipulated to better fit the models. The promoters claim that the debate is over—an overwhelming majority supports the assertion of man-made global warming. Absent political motives and given an unbiased view of the relevant data, scientists do not share this view but have the opposite conclusion.

The real questions we should pursue are:

• As a global community, are we far better off in all categories of quality of life based on economic progress, than we would have been under a regime of limited CO2 emissions? Would people in Central Africa choose to build a single CO2 capture plant in their country, or would they rather spend this capital and incremental energy costs to drill 100,000 new water wells, add thousands of school buildings, modernize the public infrastructure, and have virtually unlimited medicines?

• Has any artificial shifting of resources toward non-economic areas ever yielded overall positive results?

• Has human nature changed in its desire for power and control, to the point that we are willing to entrust ourselves to the pure motives of some governmental or regulatory entity to control our environment and economic destiny?

The wonder to behold is that the sun can maintain a controlled nuclear reaction at 5,500°C such that the temperature deviation at any one location on the planet 150 million km away, will only range within extremes of 50°C during the course of a year!

Before rushing to impose draconian measures to reduce the CO2 level in the atmosphere, the costs and expected benefits to the global community must be documented. Prudent decision making for investments requires:
• Certainty on return (outcome)
• Returns commensurate with the risk
• Results which are measurable
• Investors of the capital and resources who are rewarded.

Proponents of CO2 restrictions would violate every tenet of business and economic well-being by having:
• Uncertain outcome
• Infinitely high risk
• No measurable impact on temperature
• No one is rewarded; everyone is penalized.

The constraints on capital are particularly limiting. In a petrochemical plant or refinery, the approval criteria for projects are usually a time period for payback of less than one year. Many households use (or should use) similar criteria. Compelling the industry to implement projects with poor or less favorable economic return is an unwise use of resources. Ultimately, the increased cost in energy and raw materials will be borne by global consumers.

The debate in support of the anthropogenic cause of global warming is highly illogical:

Postulation: Economies will grow with the plethora of new “green” jobs. The reality is that we will have a net loss of jobs due to drain and redirection of resources toward noneconomic producing activity.

Postulation: The poorest in the world will benefit the most by stopping global climate change. The reality is that the poorest will be disproportionately hurt by legislation that makes the cost of fuel and general living expenses increase.

Limiting CO2 will be absolutely harmful to our existence. CO2 reduction is completely unnecessary and would result in higher costs due to a misallocation of resources. There are no environmental benefits from reducing CO2 emissions, only very high costs. One could make a reasonable counter-argument that increased CO2 in the atmosphere allows plant life to grow faster to help alleviate a global food shortage; or that higher year-long temperatures have led to more prosperity and better quality of life across the globe.

The other reasons for reducing fossil fuel consumption—such as national energy security, supporting the farming community; or managing finite resources—should be debated on their own merits. There are very different public policies to appropriately address these separate concerns.

If refiners and petrochemical operators are nonetheless compelled to reduce energy consumption or otherwise limit CO2 emissions, then the choices are:

• Substitute nontraditional energy sources such as wind, solar or biomass. These are already tapped out with present technology and capital costs, and logistical limitations. More can be done, but at significantly higher incremental cost.

• Switch from traditional fossil fuel sources such as coal to natural gas, which has a lower carbon intensity. This can be done to some extent, but nowhere near the requirement to have any meaningful impact on atmospheric CO2 levels. This also penalizes the coal industry, which produces the most abundant and accessible energy resource on Earth.

• Capture and sequester CO2. Carbon capture will directly reduce CO2 emissions, but at a high cost. The cost is estimated at approximately 30% of the power output from a coal-fired electrical generating plant, notwithstanding the very high capital cost.

All these solutions have high economic costs; therefore, they haven’t been implemented. The best approach is to focus on sustainable processes and practices that:
• Preserve or replenish natural resources
• Reduce operation costs
• Are economically viable with capital constraints
• Are inherently safer with respect of human life.

Some reasonable examples of sustainable processes and practices that should be supported include:

1. Reducing energy consumption by:
    • Using high performance mass transfer and adsorption devices in distillation operations
    • Eliminating obsolete technology such as glycol solvents for aromatics extraction 
    • Performing regular online heater cleaning instead of shutting down after a period of declining operation.
    • Adopting modern operational practices related to startup/shutdown, flaring and process control.

2. Making higher-value products, including:
    • Steam cracker byproduct upgrades
    • Fluid catalytic cracking gasoline to aromatics
    • Recycle wastes to fuel

3. Reducing noxious compounds to the environment by:
    • H2S and SO2
• Benzene in gasoline

In conclusion, there is no scientific basis that warrants reductions in CO2 to mitigate global climate change. Even if there were a tendency toward global warming, man-made contributions are negligible compared to solar activity and other natural contributors. Government policies that distort energy consumption patterns to lower CO2 emissions are a tax on society and hurt the lowest income population the most. We must be realistic in our view about comprehensive laws aimed at protecting the environment. Any decisions in this area should be based on sound science and absent political motives. Real world problems such as global hunger, disease and clean water can be better addressed if we are not stifled with unnecessary and counterproductive costs of trying to solve the wrong problem. HP

The author 

  Joseph C. Gentry is Director of Global Licensing for GTC Technology US, LLC, in Houston, Texas. He previously worked for ARCO Chemical Co., and Lyondell Petrochemical Co., as a process engineer in the olefins and aromatics areas. Mr. Gentry earned a BS degree in chemical engineering from Auburn University and an MBA from the University of Houston. He is the inventor of several patented separations technologies and has specialized in application of these in the petrochemical industry. Mr. Gentry is a registered engineer in the state of Texas, and has authored several papers on licensing process technologies in refining and petrochemical applications. 

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Joseph Gentry (author)

These remarks by the HP reader confirm that, I succeeded in my first goal: “To open the debate about global climate change.” The preponderance of media coverage on climate change is alarmist, guilt-inducing, and closed to alternative viewpoints. This has swayed opinions in the general public and even some in the scientific community to accept the prescription of draconian changes to our lifestyles and business practices to cure the pervasive enemy of ‘climate change’. The entirety of the situation needs to be considered.

There are valid, well-founded data selections supporting a change in our climate and others which refute such changes. Even here, the causes of such changes are in question, and the supposed solutions are even more questionable.

I chose data selections from the IPCC 1990 report and other sources, which visually demonstrated my viewpoint to question the premise of climate change. However, my aim was not to have a ‘data war’, but to elucidate what is really happening in the industry, the threat to refiners, and the unintended consequences we face of misguided policies.

Refiners, like all other industries, have a duty to produce clean products in a safe and environmentally sensitive manner. I contend that most in the industry already act accordingly on account of economic reasons and competitive pressure. The problem with climate change legislation, is that special interest motives and a political power grab have usurped common sense about our created world, such that we all become losers.

Bill Haaf

I am a scientist and yes I do accept the scientific consensus view that Climate change is man made and presents serious risks to everyone( but I am much more concerned about my grandchildren). As a scientist I agree we should be skeptical and challenge the science; but act based on the best evidence at hand. However, while the article by Mr Gentry is skeptical he does not “Play by the Rules of science” so to speak. Tho I do agree with his suggestions on process energy conservation.

First his job and career is dependent on petrochemical industry and the use of fossil fuels. I dislike asking this but: Was he paid by that industry to write this piece ?

Second, he cherry picks data; appeals to our emotions and makes up false trade offs. He also tries to link climate change to a solar activity. This supposed link has been disproved in the peer reviewed literature.

Third and most importantly; he does not provide ANY references to peer reviewed articles in scientific journals that support his opinions. Sorry; but if he is going to attack the literally thousands of peer reviewed articles supporting climate change issue then he needs to present real honest to goodness data and scientific publications.

Fourth; he ignores the consensus bodies that have spoken out and issued statements regarding climate change. He would do well to read these: Does he believe the climate scientist worldwide have made up the data? I urge Mr Gentry and you to read the NAS letter to Congress in Jan of this year.

Finally, he makes no mention of the change in the acidity of the oceans. They have moved 30% more acidic in the last hundred years. Even if climate change was a natural cycle; the data is overwhelming that CO2 uptake in the oceans from Man made sources is a huge threat to shell fish and coral reefs. Ref:
Ocean acidification: The Inter-Academy Panel on International Issues (IAP) has June 2009 launched a statement signed by 100 of the world’s leading science academies. “ The critical role of the oceans in the global carbon cycle: the oceans have absorbed about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere by human activities since the industrial revolution. the rapidity and irreversibility of the changes in ocean chemistry that have occurred as a direct result. The oceans are now more acidic than they have been for 800,000 years. the implications of these changes for marine ecosystems are very serious and threaten the ocean ecosystems.”

References: for Consensus bodies on Climate Change…

I. National Academy of Science: Understanding and Responding to Climate Change
The letter (2/2011) from U.S. National Academy of Sciences to every member if the US House and US Senate.
NAS said “Man made”; “Serious” and “Risk Crossing Abrupt Thresholds”.

II. The UK Royal Society; The German and Australian and Japanese

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