People around the world greeted the end of World War II with relief, enthusiasm and a return to normal life. Normality brought with it greater mobility and an increased demand for conveniences to simplify—and often glamorize—daily existence. Both of these trends had major impacts for the oil industry at large and, specifically, for the Richmond Refinery.
In 1946, Standard Oil Co. of California (Socal) began a long-range modernization and expansion of its refinery facilities that continued unabated for the next quarter century. The Richmond Refinery, the company’s largest U.S. plant, experienced dramatic growth in its facilities – and, above all, in its capacity to produce higher-value, higher-volume gasolines, lubricants, and petroleum chemicals.
To accommodate the demands of the postwar generation of higher-compression engines, the refinery constructed units that increased the production of highly refined products. Among the first of these units was a 50,000-barrel residuum stripper, which converted heavy residual fuel oil into lighter products when it was completed in 1951. At the same time, one of the plant’s large catalytic cracking units was modified to obtain higher yields of aviation and motor gasoline components, particularly from low gravity crude oils.
In 1959, Socal made a major breakthrough when it developed the Isocracking process, in which a catalyst rearranged the existing molecules in heavy fuel oils, creating a new hydrogen atom that removed sulfur and converted the low-value fuel oils into gasoline and other high-yield products. The company also completed a new fluid catalytic cracking unit capable of processing 40,000 barrels daily of feed stock, further adding to the high-octane gasolines being demanded in rapidly increasing quantities by modern, high-compression automobile engines.
Yet another breakthrough came in 1965, when the Richmond Refinery opened the world’s largest Isomax hydrocracking complex to convert heavy petroleum oils to lighter stocks for gasoline and other higher valued products. This 62,000-barrel-a-day unit increased the plant’s gasoline output by 40% while reducing production of less valuable heavy fuels. Auxiliary units included a hydrogen manufacturing plant and solvent deasphalting plant, the largest of their kind ever constructed.
With new cars and machinery came a demand for new products. The postwar years were marked by a dramatic increase in demand for petrochemicals to serve as the building blocks for hundreds of essential consumer products. Socal became a leader in this fast-growing area and relied increasingly on the Richmond Refinery to supply its petrochemical needs. In 1951, the refinery added a new unit to manufacture paraxylene, a basic material for making synthetic fibers, becoming the first of its kind to extract this material from petroleum. Other “firsts” included the 1954 completion of the West Coast’s initial phenol plant for the manufacture of lubricating oil and lubricating oil additive, resins and plastic, and plywood adhesives. A year later, the refinery added a plant to manufacture a chemical intermediate known as isophthalic, becoming the first U.S. plant to produce this new material for use in plastics and surface coatings.
By 1960, the Richmond refinery was one of the foremost sources of petroleum chemicals in the United States. That same year, Socal’s Oronite Division began construction of a $17 million complex of para- and orthoxylenes, important chemical intermediates, at the Richmond Refinery. And in 1965, a major expansion of Richmond’s paraxylene plant consolidated the company’s position as the leading manufacturer of this chemical. Another major project increased the capacity for production of alpha olefins, used extensively in the manufacture of “soft” detergents, lubricant additives, plastics and plasticizers.
While the refinery expanded its operations, it retained its strong record for maintaining high safety and environmental standards. One safety milestone occurred in 1949, when the Richmond Refinery employees completed 2 million manhours without a lost-time accident. This exemplary record was consistent with the refinery’s long tradition of stressing safety. The plant’s safety policy not only expresses concern for the health and safety of all employees, but emphasizes how hard the refinery works to ensure that its activities promote and safe and healthful workplace for employees, contract workers and visitors.
Concern for health extended to the environment, too. Over the years Socal invested many millions of dollars in pollution control facilities, many of which were installed long before mandatory measures were enacted, and always ensured that its installations were in full compliance with all air pollution control regulations. In 1960, the company allocated more than $20 million to suppress emission of pollutants at its Richmond and El Segundo, Calif., refineries. Six years later, the refinery completed a plant to recover ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from waste waters.
This sensitivity to the environment was a natural way of doing business for a refinery with deep roots in the Richmond community.