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Oil companies push into biorefining

French firm Total is latest to convert a fossil fuel refinery to biofuels, but the trend has its limits

by Alex Scott
October 1, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 38


A close-up photo of an airplane.
Credit: Total
Total says its biorefinery project will help France meet its target of making 2% sustainable aviation fuel by 2025 and 5% by 2030.

The French oil and petrochemical giant Total will invest around $600 million to convert its refinery in Seine-et-Marne, France, from refining petroleum to refining natural oils and fats. Other oil companies are also deploying this strategy in response to the Paris climate agreement and coming legislation in California.

The biorefinery will be able to process 400,000 metric tons (t) per year of renewable ingredients—primarily animal fats—from Europe, along with used cooking oil and oils from crops such as canola. From this feedstock, Total plans to produce up to 170,000 t of aviation fuel, 120,000 t of diesel, and 50,000 t of naphtha for making renewable plastics per year.

“The conversion of Total’s refinery, along with others in California, is being driven by regulation and the narrowing margin for refining crude oil,” says Alan Gelder, vice president of refining, chemicals, and oil markets at the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

Total plans to complete the conversion by 2024. It will cease crude oil refining at the site early next year and the storage of petroleum products in late 2023. It will cut the number of workers from about 400 to 250 after the site’s conversion.

Also at the Seine-et-Marne facility, Total Corbion, Total’s joint venture with the Dutch firm Corbion, will build Europe’s first plant for polylactic acid, a biodegradable plastic made from sugar. The facility, which will open in 2024, will have a capacity of 100,000 t per year. The partners already operate a similar plant in Thailand.

And Total will build a plastics recycling plant at the site in a joint venture with the start-up Plastic Energy. The plant will use pyrolysis to convert plastic waste into an oil raw material used for making polymers with properties identical to those of virgin polymers. Total aims to produce 30% of its polymers from recycled materials by 2030.

The refinery conversion trend has its limits, Gelder cautions. The Seine-et-Marne biorefinery will be just 10% of the size of the crude oil refinery it will replace, he says, and its production of aviation fuel will be equivalent to just 2% of France’s 2019 consumption. A wholesale shift from fossil fuel refining to biorefining is not in the cards, he adds, as currently there simply are not enough low-carbon or waste oils and fats available.

Another challenge for producers of aviation fuel from waste oils and fats is that it costs significantly more to make compared with jet fuel from crude oil, says Jonathan Wood, vice president for sustainable aviation fuel at the Finnish oil and gas firm Neste. Regulations requiring airlines to use a minimum percentage of sustainable fuel in their tanks are anticipated, though, Wood says. Neste recently signed a deal to supply a “significant” volume of aviation fuel derived from waste oils to Shell, he adds.

Total completed a similar conversion of its La Mède crude oil refinery near Marseille, France, into a biorefinery in 2019. Also that year, the Italian oil and gas firm Eni opened a biorefinery in Gela, Italy, that runs on a mix of waste and new vegetable oils and animal fats.

In the US, the oil companies Phillips 66, Global Clean Energy, and Marathon Oil have disclosed plans to convert refineries in California to run on oils and fats instead of petroleum. California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard requires fuel companies to use some low-carbon fuel to reduce the carbon intensity of the state’s transportation fuel pool.


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