Chevron's New Downstream Tricks

We may not ever again have another new refinery built in the U.S., but, if Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) has its way, there'll be new technology available for the nation's -- and indeed, the world's -- existing facilities.

Heretofore, it's been challenging to turn heavy crude into transportation fuels, such as gasoline, jet fuel, or diesel. By heavy crude, I'm referring to the type that comes from places such as Venezuela's tar sands.

But in an experiment that's in the early stages at its Pascagoula, Mississippi, refinery, Chevron may change the paradigm for refining the thicker crude. In an initial 3,500 barrel-per-day pre-commercial plant, the company will apply a technology called Vacuum Resid Slurry Hydrocracking, which it hopes will substantially improve its ability to milk the most product from the thick crude.

Heretofore, the yield from heavy crude has been limited to about 80%. The other 20% takes the form of heavy coke. But Chevron hopes its new technology will increase the conversion rate from feed stock to about 100%, or even 120%.

So while it'll probably be a cold day in Venezuela before a new refinery is constructed in the U.S., the industry isn't standing still. A number of companies are adding capacity to or are upgrading existing units, including Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) (NYSE: RDS-B  ) , Total (NYSE: TOT  ) , and BP (NYSE: BP  ) .

But I'm especially intrigued by the new technology that Chevron appears to be developing. Its application solely to the conversion of Canadian synthetic crude would be meaningful, given that nation's role as the lead provider of imported oil into the U.S. Yes, it appears I now have yet another reason pay attention to Chevron.

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