Petroleum Refiners

Oil Refinery in Texas City, Texas.

EES | Cases by Practice Area

Clean Air Act Petroleum Refinery Initiative

In the mid-1990’s EPA began to investigate whether, due to substantial increases in petroleum production, there were also increases in harmful air emissions and, whether these increases were being properly permitted by the regulating authorities. EPA determined that, in fact, refineries were being expanded without proper review and permitting, with resulting increases in air emissions.

Refineries are among the largest sources of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide air emissions in the country. After further investigations, EPA and the Environmental Enforcement Section initiated the National Clean Air Act Petroleum Refinery Initiative, which has proven to be one of the most successful enforcement initiatives undertaken.


The goal of the initiative was to bring the refineries in the United States into compliance with the Clean Air Act (CAA). In particular EES sought compliance in four major programs for the largest air emissions sources at refineries:
  • modifications to the fluid catalytic cracking units, violating Prevention of Significant Deterioration or New Source Review requirements of the CAA;
  • flaring of acid gases and failure to adequately treat sulfur emissions as required by New Source Performance Standards of the CAA;
  • failure to accurately identify and minimize fugitive emissions throughout the refinery as required by Leak Detection and Repair regulations; and,
  • failure to manage benzene waste streams in accordance with the Benzene Waste NESHAP.

These four areas are known as the “marquee issues.”


The initiative has been tremendously successful, and has resulted thus far in consent decrees entered in federal district court that obligate refiners who produce more than 90% of the domestic refining capacity in the United States to implement measures to upgrade their pollution control equipment and operating practices for the four marquee issue areas. These settlements cover 108 refineries nationwide, in 33 consent decrees.


Once the measures required to be undertaken in the consent decrees are fully implemented it is anticipated that emissions of:
  • sulfur dioxide will be reduced by 256,000 tons per year
  • nitrogen oxides will be reduced by 93,000 tons per year, as well as substantial emissions of volatile organic compounds.

In addition, the refineries will pay civil penalties of more than $93 million and perform supplemental environmental projects valued at $80 million. It is also expected that the settling refiners will spend close to $6 billion in order to comply with the requirements of the consent decrees.

These settlements will have a substantial positive benefit for health and the environment by removing significant amounts of harmful pollutants from the atmosphere.


Updated May 14, 2015

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