Occasionally flares from Utah's refineries are visible to the public. Refineries have worked diligently over the past few years to eliminate or greatly reduce the amount of flaring that takes place. Some refineries have invested significant capital into technologies to capture and productively use those excess gases that previously had been sent to the flare, reducing emissions and returning valuable assets into a productive use. Occasionally, however, flares are necessary to reduce pressure within a refinery as a safety precaution oftentimes as a result of an unexpected upset in the refinery, such as a power bump our outage.
What are flares?
Flares are important safety devices used in refineries and petrochemical facilities. They safely burn excess hydrocarbon gases which cannot be recovered or recycled. Excess hydrocarbon gases are burnt in the flare systems in an environmentally-sound manner, as an alternative to releasing the vapor directly into the atmosphere.
During flaring, excess gases are combined with steam and/or air and burnt off in the flare system to produce water vapor and carbon dioxide. The process of burning these excess gases is similar to the burning of liquefied petroleum gases (LPG), which some of us use as fuel for home cooking.
The use of flares is minimized to the extent that is possible. However, flaring can occur during a start-up and shut-down of any of our facilities for maintenance, and also during unplanned operational interruptions such as power outages.
When there is flaring at a refinery, established guidelines are followed to promptly inform neighboring companies and appropriate governmental agencies such as the Utah Division of Air Quality.
Are flares safe?
Members of the public may become concerned when they see flaring and mistake them for fires when in reality they are a safely controlled and monitored method of reducing pressures and excess gases within a facility.
Sometimes, a white cloud may be observed around the flare. It is actually steam that is injected into the flare system to support clean combustion. While our refineries strive to achieve smokeless flaring, it may not always be possible during operational situations. On some occasions, there may be black smoke from the flare. The smoke, which is mainly made up of carbon particles, occurs when there is an insufficient amount of air to support complete combustion. This may happen when there is a sudden release of excess gases to the system with a delay in response before sufficient steam can be supplied to the burning process. Steam is usually added to the gases to increase turbulence in the gas flow. This increases air intake that helps to achieve complete combustion and smokeless flaring.
Utah’s refineries are committed to ensuring that our operations run safely and with minimal impact on the community and the environment. We strive to minimize flaring, keeping it to the times that it is necessary for the continued safe operation of our plants.
When you see flaring, please be assured that flares play a key role in keeping refineries running safely.