Petroleum refining is among the largest industrial greenhouse gas emission sources in the U.S., producing approximately 13% of U.S. industrial emissions and approximately 3% of all U.S. emissions. While the U.S. must rapidly reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, some demand will remain for petroleum refinery products in the coming decades, and so it is critical that refineries deeply decarbonize. For the U.S. to meet its climate target of net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050, petroleum use must dramatically decline and refineries must transform to reduce their substantial emissions.

This analysis finds that using current and novel technologies – like fuel switching to clean hydrogen; electrification; and carbon capture, utilization and storage – can deeply decarbonize refineries, delivering climate benefits and improving local air quality as the U.S. transitions away from fossil fuels in the coming decades. It shows how, in the long-term, refineries could shift to processing renewable feedstocks to produce low-carbon fuels for aviation, shipping and trucking – our toughest to abate transportation sectors – ultimately reducing fuel carbon intensities by up to 80%. By leveraging technologies and adapting to low-carbon demands, refineries could provide lower-carbon products for our economy while helping meet U.S. climate goals.

The paper provides policymakers and stakeholders with an overview of refinery emissions today and the possibilities for and barriers to mitigating them. To deeply decarbonize refineries, the paper calls for ambitious expansion of existing and novel technologies, supported by further independent research and supportive policies.

Key Findings:

  • Even with ambitious decarbonization policies and growing electric vehicle penetration, demand will remain for transportation fuels and petrochemicals in the coming decades. The refineries that make these products must decarbonize to meet U.S. climate goals.
  • Decarbonizing refineries has the potential to reduce nearly 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and improve local air quality. That potential stems from reducing emissions from on-site heat generation and refining processes.
  • The refining sector can meet its annual heat demands while cutting emissions by switching from fossil fuels to low- and zero-carbon hydrogen fuel and/or through electrification of low-to-medium-grade heating. Process emissions can be abated through carbon capture and storage technology.
  • Most of the technological options are available today at various levels of development, and innovation and deployment will expand their usage.
  • Immediate access to carbon dioxide and hydrogen uniquely situates refineries to produce low-carbon and carbon-negative fuels today through existing approaches such as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis.
  • In the long term, refineries could switch from processing crude oil for conventional fuel to renewable feedstocks for synthetic fuels, primarily for aviation and trucking. This could reduce fuel carbon intensities by up to 80 percent.