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US Oil Refineries Find Paying Fines Can Be Cheaper Than Cleaning Up

Many facilities dodge expensive upgrades and emit outsize quantities of greenhouse gases.

Chevron’s  refinery in Salt Lake City.

Chevron’s  refinery in Salt Lake City.

Photographer: Irina K/Shutterstock
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Nestled between the snow-capped peaks of the Wasatch Mountains and the briny waters of the Great Salt Lake, I-15 in northern Utah leads to some of the most unspoiled areas in the US. But on the way, visitors must pass a gauntlet of five oil refineries that foul the air with carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, benzene and other pollutants. While the facilities rank among the smallest processors of crude oil in the country, they spew out more greenhouse gases per barrel than most larger facilities. And because they’re located high in the Rockies, the effect of their emissions is supercharged, making the Salt Lake refineries a hazard to both public health and the climate. “People live very, very close to these,” says Joro Walker of Western Resource Advocates, a conservation group. “Everything needs to be done to ensure that the emissions from the refineries are minimized.”

The situation shows the loopholes in regulating refineries. They’re a major contributor to global warming, but the US Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t directly police their greenhouse gas emissions. While the EPA does regulate other hazardous pollutants, the penalties are often too low to ensure compliance, and in many cases the agency isn’t as tough as it could be.