In the same fashion that coal fired power plants are built in areas close-by huge coal deposits, petroleum refining facilities and transportation infrastructure is big business in the Four Corners and Intermountain West. Every part of this category is extremely inspection intensive.

Crude oil and other wellhead liquids are typically transported by truck and occasionally by pipeline to central facilities where the crude is pipelined to area refineries, or forwarded to rail loading sites for export.

The days of the old-style topping plants are a thing of the past. Those dinosaurs from the 50’s and 60’s used a simple low pressure tower to knock out the light ends of the crude barrel (naphtha), mixed in a little natural gas liquids to stretch the “stew” and then threw in a pinch of tetraethyl lead to make various octane levels. Good to go for that day and time – ship it to the discount gas stations.

No more. Today’s refineries are state-of-the-art with rows of high-tech units utilizing rare metals and chemicals which, along with extreme temperatures and pressures, allow the oil companies to extract every last drop of value from the precious barrel of crude oil. Add high pressures, high temperatures, and high volatility hydrocarbons and you know that achieving safety through regularly scheduled inspections will be right on top of the priority list.

At the wellhead, natural gas is essentially in the same form as that distributed for home use – basically a vapor. The first step is to strip water or other contaminants in a separator. Next, the gas vapor is compressed for pipeline shipment to a central site for additional processing. But before it can enter the “main” line to the treating plants the gas must be compressed yet again – the main lines operate at extreme pressures. On a Sunday drive through natural gas country you will see these huge compressor stations dotting the landscape. The treating plants strip the natural gas of all traces of water, H2S (hydrogen sulphide) and carbon dioxide before sending the natural gas on down the line.

The high-pressure gathering system pipelines eventually lead to a fractionator – the term used for plants that essentially refine natural gas, separating or fractionating it into its marketable components. Among those are natural gas, propane, butane and light natural gasoline blend stock. For safety reasons, all of these products must be “odorized” prior to distribution for sales. Ever wondered what makes natural gas and propane smell like that? It’s Ethyl Mercaptin, a concentrated odorant that they put in propane and natural gas in order make leaks easier to smell.

Once the natural gas products are ready for sales, much of the natural gas is compressed heavily and sent on its way to market all across the Southwest via high-volume pipelines which are regulated by the US DOT. The propane and butane are typically compressed to the liquid state and shipped via highway trucks or rail car.