A lot of interesting things come wafting in through the open window here at I.C. headquarters. Among them, the sound of trains bashing together and blowing their tremendous air horns in the yard just a mile or so away. In the age of steam locomotives a conductor could apply some personal style to those whistle blasts. Woot wooo-ee-ooot! Operators of modern locomotives have a button on a console. They're limited to long horn blasts or short. With variations on this theme today's conductors communicate in surprisingly nuanced signals broadcast at hellacious volume -- government researchers found locomotive horns are louder inside the homes in the vicinity of the train yards than within the sound-proofed cabs of the locomotives themselves.
Two long horn blasts in a row -- so common it must be some kind of acknowledgment, not unlike the courier's ten-four. Two longs, a short, and a long: approaching an intersection. A series of short sharp ones. You hear this occasionally, some kind of warning, trouble. Hobos on the track.
But that's not what I came here to talk about tonight. I'm here to talk about something else that has been known to barge through the window here, the noxious cloud from Denver's Suncor oil refinery.
Refineries and residential areas aren't a good mix, yet Denver had two churning away in Commerce City. The Canadian firm Suncor acquired the well-known Conoco refinery in 2003 after the Federal Trade Commission ordered the sale of the plant as a stipulation of Conoco's merger with Phillips. Then Suncor picked up the Valero refinery across the street for a song and combined the two operations. Suncor spent $450 million outfitting the refinery to process Western Canadian Sour crude -- from the 'oil sands' -- and the plant receives a constant flow of the stuff straight from Alberta via pipeline.
An oil refinery is like a giant high-tech still, using steam heat to vaporize and break down the crude into various components that are siphoned off in a condensation tower. The parts are cooked and combined in various ways, chemically altered, swirled about and spat upon by wizards to create the products we rely on. The sprawling complex of white tanks, stacks and pipes in Commerce City, clearly visible from downtown Denver, processes about 90,000 barrels of crude each day. From this raw material enough gasoline is conjured to supply about 40% of Denver's appetite. But out of each barrel of Canadian Sour comes a multitude of products in addition to gasoline, from jet fuel to asphalt to sulfur and feedstocks to be sent off and transformed into fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, plastic bottles and everything else imaginable. A pipeline sends finished lubricating oils directly to the Union Pacific yard to be hauled off.
It's obvious the refinery's products include more than just delightfully useful distillates. There is also the Cloud. Most of the time the noxious effluent from Denver's refinery goes unnoticed; occasionally, perhaps due to unfortunate shifts in wind direction or temperature inversions, the plant sends its heavy orange plume back over the city. In the warm months the Cloud has several times climbed through the open window here and shocked me awake with its rancid stench, as startling as a cold slap to the face. You walk outside sometimes, ready to start the day; then the Cloud hits you and makes you want to go back inside, before it's too late. It hangs in the air, sticks to everything. This is quite a bit worse than Denver's normal dangerously high levels of pollution from motor traffic. It's completely in your face. In your mouth, nose, eyes and ears. It is clearly, obviously unhealthy to be exposed to the refinery plume. According to EPA documents, Denver's refinery sends hundreds of tons of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, particulates and nitrogen oxides -- and thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide -- into the air each year. But this is our Cloud. This is the deal we made: a deal with the Dirt Devil. We get to live this fantastic super consumer drive-everywhere lifestyle, watch TV and eat donuts. The catch? Poison gas. Oh, that.
It's fitting that the people who create the Cloud should have to deal with it. I'm not talking about the engineers at Suncor. Typically the cities that demand and burn the most gas don't have to sit under the toxic refinery clouds that result from its production. The refineries are usually situated downstream, spewing their pollution over unsuspecting rural populations or unpopulated prairies-- out of sight, out of mind. When refineries are located in cities, as in Pittsburgh and Denver, those chickies can really come home to roost.
So open your mouths America. Breathe deep. Taste it. Taste it hard. This is the cloud we made. Every one of us. Even the dedicated transportational cyclists out there share the responsibility -- those who don't drive still benefit from those who do and from refined crude oil in its myriad other forms. If you live in the US you're living the petroleum life. And even the bicycle is dependent on petroleum even if it doesn't burn any, like any machine with lots of moving parts. Pass the TriFlow when you get a chance, my chain is screamin' after the rain today.
It's been fashionable to blame the ongoing hike in gas prices on a lack of refinery capacity in the US. When you believe that building refineries and opening up environmentally sensitive areas to drilling will bring sanity back to the energy markets -- something that many Americans seem predisposed to believe -- then the only thing standing between America and her birthright of cheap gas is the dang environmentalists! How convenient is that. Of course this popular view betrays a profound misunderstanding of the predicament we're in. Building refineries won't reverse the long-term upward trend in gas prices. Frantic domestic drilling could help but it won't reverse the decades-long decline in domestic production or have any measurable effect on oil or gasoline prices. It will certainly have a measurable effect on the landscape and water quality however. How many of those clamoring for new refineries will have to breathe their poison emissions? People only want refineries and wars if the negative realities are foisted off on somebody else's kids.
If the petroleum age does slip by the wayside, giving way to cleaner fuels in a toned-down motoring culture and finally driving most of the refineries out of business, Denver will not weep for the loss of its sick-orange refinery cloud. Of course, by then we'll all be too dead from refinery-related diseases to really enjoy it.