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Planet Money Watches Crude Oil Transform Into Gasoline At Refinery

Sep 20, 2016
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week we're following our Planet Money team on a journey into the heart of the oil business. They started off buying a hundred barrels of crude oil and got it to a pipeline. Well, today we listen as it arrives at a refinery to be turned into gasoline. Stacey Vanek Smith and Robert Smith were there to meet it.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: We pulled to McPherson, Kans., late at night. It is a small town just off the highway. But it has a skyline that looks like Manhattan - towers shooting into the sky all lit up.

VINCE BENGSTON: You see the lights way before you see it and start wondering, what's that? I mean everybody that's here - they know what it is. It's home.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Vince Bengston lives in McPherson and works in those bright towers. This is the CHS oil refinery. It's no less impressive in the daylight. It is vast - thousands of pipes and tanks and catwalks. And the refinery is so enormous because it does this amazing thing.

R. SMITH: Yes, yes, yes. I have this little bit of our Planet Money oil right here in this bottle. And it looks just like this thick, black liquid. But in fact crude oil is a mixture. Think of it like a petrochemical smoothie.

S. SMITH: There are molecules in there that become butane for your lighter, molecules that become diesel.

R. SMITH: The refinery unjumbles the hydrocarbons in oil. It sorts like with like all along the way in these pipes and tanks.

S. SMITH: And the last bit of this sorting happens in the coker.

R. SMITH: The coker.

BENGSTON: This is our new coker that came online in February.

S. SMITH: The coker is two giant, black cylinders that tower over everything. Essentially, it is a very tall oven.

BENGSTON: Realize there is more heat at the bottom of the column than at the top.

R. SMITH: So how hot on the bottom and how hot at the top?

BENGSTON: Bottom of the column - 840 degrees Fahrenheit - 360 on top.

R. SMITH: So you could cook a steak, basically, at the bottom. And the top is more like a cake temperature.

BENGSTON: A good sear on a good steak on the bottom, yes.

R. SMITH: All these different temperatures separate out the parts of the crude.

S. SMITH: The black, tar-like gook stays at the bottom. The gases move to the top. And all the different kinds of petroleum products are sorted out in between.

BENGSTON: Natural gas, propane, butane, gasoline, diesel. Some of the sulfur that's removed in other processes goes into fertilizer.

R. SMITH: Fertilizer that gets used on the cornfields right around McPherson. And that corn gets fed to pigs. Pigs make ham.

S. SMITH: So if we go eat a sandwich in town, we could be eating our oil.

BENGSTON: Yes.

S. SMITH: Really?

BENGSTON: Yes.

R. SMITH: Refineries are the reason that oil can be made into everything - our cellphones, clothes, cosmetics, medication, furniture.

S. SMITH: Sandwiches.

R. SMITH: Sandwiches - but most of the Planet Money oil is getting turned into good, old-fashioned gasoline. Once that happens, it will go via pipeline from the CHS refinery to its final destination, someone's gas tank.

S. SMITH: And where's this pipeline going?

BENGSTON: Council Bluffs.

S. SMITH: Where is that?

BENGSTON: Iowa.

S. SMITH: Looks like we're going to Iowa.

R. SMITH: Iowa - tune into Morning Edition tomorrow to keep following the Planet Money oil pipeline. Robert Smith.

S. SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News, McPherson, Kans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.