US refiners concerned with potential MTBE ban

US refiners' concerns over octane loss dominated the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA) question-and-answer session on refining and petrochemical technology in Philadelphia today.

David Nakamura
Refining/Petrochemical Editor

PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 16 -- US refiners' concerns over octane loss dominated the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (NPRA) question-and-answer session on refining and petrochemical technology in Philadelphia today.

Those concerns centered on the looming erosion of the US octane pool resulting from new gasoline specifications currently being debated in the US House of Representatives and Senate as part of a pending energy bill (OGJ Online, Oct. 9, 2002).

Addressing attendees at a plant managers panel, US refinery plant managers said that lost gasoline volume resulting from a potential ban on methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) is not a huge concern for US refiners. Instead, refiners are more concerned with replacing lost octane.

According to Susan Krienen, general director of Williams Refining & Marketing LLC, US refiners will have to increase alkylation capacity to make up for the octane that will be lost with the discontinued use of MTBE.

Steve Herzog, facility operations manager at Sunoco Inc.'s Philadelphia refinery, said that East Coast refiners would most likely import gasoline to make up for the lost volume if MTBE is removed from the gasoline pool. MTBE can constitute over 10 vol % of the gasoline pool in regions where reformulated gasoline is required.

If an ethanol mandate survives in the final energy bill, as expected, refiners would have to deal with higher Reid vapor pressure associated with ethanol, the morning's panelists noted.

Alkylate prospects
In the afternoon session on best practices, Carlos Camacho, manager, refinery specialist at Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., said that Europe is a potential source of high-octane alkylate. The level of imports, however, would vary seasonably, and Europe might not be a reliable, steady source as a result, he said.

According to panelists, US refiners would have to remove more butanes and pentanes from gasoline. And most refiners would prefer to alkylate the compounds to create higher-octane gasoline blendstocks.

However, refiners may not have enough current alkylation capacity to handle these additional feed streams.

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