Chevron lets community members get better acquainted with the refinery that is such a familiar part of the Richmond landscape. Tour guides fielded questions and explained the processes that go on in the plant.

A look inside Chevron’s Richmond refinery

By Rachel Waldholz-Richmond Confidential, September 13, 2011

The 2,900-acre Chevron refinery complex has been a familiar backdrop to locals since it was built in the early 1900s — but few have ever had a chance to look behind the curtain. Given the opportunity on Saturday, 425 people — many of them the families of Chevron employees, curious about the place their family-members work — turned out to tour the refinery during the company’s second annual Community Tour Day.

Visitors gathered in a parking lot off Castro Street, where they were greeted with balloons, candy, hand puppets for kids, information on Chevron’s Renewal Project and postcards of refinery workers through the ages – and asked to leave behind all bags and cameras, for security reasons.

The tour was conducted entirely by bus. Tour guides pointed out the stages in the refining process, from the moment crude oil arrives on tankers — most from the North Slope of Alaska and the Middle East –to the time the refinery ships out its main products: 250,000 barrels a day of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, propane and butane, plus lubricants, exported via pipeline, trucks, or rail. The refinery, the largest of five in the Bay Area, produces most of the jet fuel used at area airports and roughly one quarter of the gasoline produced in the Bay Area, according to a guide.

Behind the gates, the buses wound through a labyrinth of silver and maroon tanks, columns, and, above all, pipes, with puffs of white steam erupting at intervals. The facility has some 5,000 miles of piping, testament to how the refining process has evolved since the refinery opened in 1902, when the refinery “was basically a series of pots,” said tour guide Tim Burchfield, a process engineer at the site. The original facility essentially boiled oil to separate it, said Burchfield, making kerosene and home heating oil.

In the modern refinery, the principle is the same, though the process has become more complex. More than one visitor compared the modern process to a distillery. Crude oil is first heated in a column to separate it by density: propane and butane at top, then gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, and at the bottom, gas oils. It is then “cracked,” or broken down into smaller molecules, stripped of sulfur, and blended with additives into usable fuel. In between refining stages, the oil – called intermediate hydrocarbons – is stored in the maroon tanks that cover the hillside above the refinery – the “tank farm,” Burchfield called it, noting that he’d worked at 15 different refineries, and this one is the prettiest he’d ever seen.

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