by Jim Kerr

Filling the tank with gasoline has become a routine (and costly) occurrence for drivers. While pumping the gas, we give little thought about how the gasoline got to the pump, or how it was manufactured. I recently had a tour of the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, and found the challenges and economics of producing a quality gasoline both interesting and enlightening. Here is what I learned.

Irving Oil Truck and SportTrac
Auto Maker’s Choice low sulphur gasolines, produced only at the Irving Oil Refinery, reduce emissions and increase driveability performance in low emission vehicles like the 2001 Ford Explorer Sport Trac shown here.

Irving Oil operates Canada’s largest oil refinery, processing 250,000 barrels of oil a day, and it is ranked as one of the top-performing refineries in the world. Currently, the refinery is undergoing a one billion-dollar upgrade to enhance efficiency and improve environmental
performance. The project has been called the “King of the Cats”. This refers to the Catalytic Cracking Unit being installed. The Catalytic cracking unit is the largest of it’s kind in the world and will enable Irving Oil to further refine heavier portions of the crude oil into lighter products such as gasoline and diesel fuel. However, I am getting ahead of myself! Lets look at why drivers should be interested in oil refining companies like Irving.

Irving Oil is the first and only refiner in Canada to produce “Auto Maker’s Choice” low sulphur gasoline. All oil companies and fuel retailers have been invited to join this program, but none of the 17 other refineries in Canada have been producing the low sulphur fuel. Some of the Oil companies will need major capital investment in their refineries to produce low sulphur gasoline.

The Auto Maker’s Choice program, developed by all the auto manufacturers in Canada, is a program to promote the use of low sulphur fuel that will help reduce vehicle emissions and maximize vehicle performance. Retailers selling the low sulphur fuel will be able to display the “Auto Maker’s Choice” logo on their pumps, so drivers will know they are getting quality fuel.

Making the fuel starts with purchasing crude oil from all over the world. Hibernia, the North sea, West Africa, and the Arab Gulf all are sources of different types of crude oil that are blended to help achieve the fuel standards. The oil comes to the refinery by supertanker; each with a 2.2 million barrel capacity. This is equivalent to 8,300
tractor-trailer loads of oil!

When the tankers arrive, they dock at a floating “monobouy’ three kilometers off shore. The monobouy is about the size of a three-bedroom bungalow and it transfers the crude oil through a 36-inch pipeline to the on-shore storage tanks. From there, the crude is pumped 8 kilometers to the refinery.

Arthur Irving Jr.
Arthur Irving Jr. stands atop Signal Hill in St. John’s, NF, holding a bag representing nine kilograms of sulphur contained in the average Canadian gasoline tanker truck. Irving Oil’s Auto Maker’s Choice gasoline contains a fraction of this amount.

At the refinery, the crude is heated to over 370 degrees C and fed into the fractioning tower. This part of the refinery is similar to a massive still! As the crude boils, it starts to vaporize, with the lightest parts of the vapour rising to the top and heavier parts settling at lower levels. The vapours are collected from the various levels and further processed to make different fuels such as gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel.

Part of the additional refining process is to remove sulphur. The fuel passes through the desulphurizer that lowers the sulphur content to about 30 parts per million in the gasoline. In comparison, the Canadian average for gasoline sulphur content is near 350 parts per million, and Ontario has an average near 450 parts per million! Excessive sulphur in the fuel reduces the effectiveness of the emission controls on automobiles about one level in emissions standards. Lowering the sulphur content from 350 to 30 parts per million eliminates about 9 kg of sulphur from the average gasoline tanker truck. This sulphur can contaminate oxygen sensors and reduce the life of your vehicle’s catalytic converter.

After the fuel is refined, it passes on to the blending unit that combines different fuels to make the gasoline that is delivered to the pumps by truck, train, and ship. But not all is done at the refinery! Some of the crude oil was broken down into tars and heavy oil. While these products are useful for things like making asphalt, they don’t have the value of products like gasoline and diesel fuel. Now the catalytic cracking unit comes into operation.

The heavy oils and tars are sprayed into the cracking unit where the oil comes into contact with a fluid bed of powdered catalyst that is heated to 1400 degrees. The long molecular chains of the heavy oil are broken into shorter chains of the fuel molecules and this additional fuel goes back for refining. More value is achieved from each barrel of oil!

Irving Oil Refinery, Saint John, NB
This gasoline desulphurizer enbles Irving Oil to continue to set the standard in producing low sulphur gasoline.

The refining process is expensive but Irving has been able to keep costs competitive because of the high percentage of quality products they get from each barrel of oil.

Why make the investment to produce low sulphur fuel? Well, Irving Oil is looking to the future when it will be required. The technology isn’t commercially available yet, but when gasoline powered fuel cell cars hit the market, they will require gasoline with zero percent sulphur! Irving plans to be ready.

For most of us, we cannot take advantage of Auto Maker’s Choice low sulphur gasoline. Irving Oil can economically only supply the East Coast of our country. That means the majority of Canadians only have access to high sulphur content fuels currently supplied by other oil companies. According to Government of Canada studies, reducing sulphur emissions
could result in 2100 fewer deaths and result in total health benefits in excess of $7.2 billion over the next 20 years. Isn’t that a good reason to be using the Auto Maker’s Choice gasoline?

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