For very valid reasons, oil companies have turned a corner and are more concerned than ever before with their public images, especially pertaining to their environmental impact. They are held to the most stringent environmental standards and are mandated to provide guarantees of transparency in the environmental management of their activities. To compound their issues, the “Great Crew Change” is another major factor in the industry’s transformation. It is estimated 71% of the oil and gas workforce is 50 years old or older. The first logical choice to replace this aging workforce are millennials, but millennials place high regard on social impact, the environment and corporate social responsibility.
Oil and gas production, processing, refining and petrochemical plants are the largest sources of industrial greenhouse gases in the United States. In the U.S., the industry pollutes the air with almost eight million metric tons of methane annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent inventory. Consisting of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, methane, the simplest hydrocarbon, is a flammable and potent greenhouse gas and a principal component of natural gas. Its global warming potential is more than 25 times that of carbon dioxide. The oil and gas industry is also the largest industrial source of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that includes air toxins such as benzene, ethylbenzene and n-hexane. This group of chemicals contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, aka smog, and exposure is linked to a wide range of health effects, including aggravated asthma, cancer and premature death.
The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40 percent since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIJ), a non-profit watchdog organization, found that the release of toxic air and water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry, are notoriously undercounted and underreported.
The oil and gas industry widely uses sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic, to remove impurities from various liquid streams. Once the caustic is exhausted and no longer suitable for use, it is identified as spent caustics. These solutions, which generally include sodium or potassium hydroxide, water and contaminants that consume sodium and potassium hydroxide, require safe removal and disposal. A common way to dispose of spent caustic is to manifest it as hazardous waste. However, that does not have to be the only choice.
Spent caustics can be beneficially reused, without reclamation, as ingredients for new products or as substitutes for commercial products. This is far more environmentally friendly than disposing of the materials as waste and, as such, the materials are no longer a part of the oil and gas companies’ waste generation statistics or reporting. Adhering to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) guidance on beneficial reuse, waste becomes valuable commodities exempt from solid waste definitions.
Merichem Company provides beneficial reuse services to refineries, chemical plants and midstream processing across the globe. As a long-time advocate of recycling and sustainability, Merichem Company develops, produces and sells full-service sulfur removal, caustic treating, and spent caustic treatment technologies, and caustic services for sulfidics, naphthenics, spent potassium hydroxide (KOH), disulfide oils (DSO), off-spec hydrocarbons and off-spec sodium hydroxide.
Beneficial reuse, a term coined by the Environmental Protection Agency, fits within the Guiding Principles of the American Chemistry Council’s Responsible Care® initiative, of which Merichem is a long-standing member. Merichem shares a common commitment to the continuous improvement in environmental, health, safety, and security performance with respect to chemical products and processes.
Beneficial reuse of caustic wastes is but one piece of the environmental pie, but it is a substantial one that can be addressed immediately with great impact.
About the Author: Kendra Lee has served as Chairman of the Board for Merichem Company since 2012 and CEO since 2014. She has worked for Merichem Company for over 20 years, beginning her career in the research laboratories. Ms. Lee continued her progression in Merichem Company in chemical sales management and the corporate functions of Treasurer and Corporate Secretary before being appointed to serve on the Board of Directors of Merichem Company on April 29, 2010. Ms. Lee received her Bachelor’s of Science degree from Texas A&M University and her Master’s of Business Administration from the University of Houston.