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Planet Money Watches Crude Oil Transform Into Gasoline At Refinery


This week we're following our Planet Money team on a journey into the heart of the oil business. They started off buying a hundred barrels of crude oil and got it to a pipeline. Well, today we listen as it arrives at a refinery to be turned into gasoline. Stacey Vanek Smith and Robert Smith were there to meet it.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: We pulled to McPherson, Kans., late at night. It is a small town just off the highway. But it has a skyline that looks like Manhattan - towers shooting into the sky all lit up.

VINCE BENGSTON: You see the lights way before you see it and start wondering, what's that? I mean everybody that's here - they know what it is. It's home.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Vince Bengston lives in McPherson and works in those bright towers. This is the CHS oil refinery. It's no less impressive in the daylight. It is vast - thousands of pipes and tanks and catwalks. And the refinery is so enormous because it does this amazing thing.

R. SMITH: Yes, yes, yes. I have this little bit of our Planet Money oil right here in this bottle. And it looks just like this thick, black liquid. But in fact crude oil is a mixture. Think of it like a petrochemical smoothie.

S. SMITH: There are molecules in there that become butane for your lighter, molecules that become diesel.

R. SMITH: The refinery unjumbles the hydrocarbons in oil. It sorts like with like all along the way in these pipes and tanks.

S. SMITH: And the last bit of this sorting happens in the coker.

R. SMITH: The coker.

BENGSTON: This is our new coker that came online in February.

S. SMITH: The coker is two giant, black cylinders that tower over everything. Essentially, it is a very tall oven.

BENGSTON: Realize there is more heat at the bottom of the column than at the top.

R. SMITH: So how hot on the bottom and how hot at the top?

BENGSTON: Bottom of the column - 840 degrees Fahrenheit - 360 on top.

R. SMITH: So you could cook a steak, basically, at the bottom. And the top is more like a cake temperature.

BENGSTON: A good sear on a good steak on the bottom, yes.

R. SMITH: All these different temperatures separate out the parts of the crude.

S. SMITH: The black, tar-like gook stays at the bottom. The gases move to the top. And all the different kinds of petroleum products are sorted out in between.

BENGSTON: Natural gas, propane, butane, gasoline, diesel. Some of the sulfur that's removed in other processes goes into fertilizer.

R. SMITH: Fertilizer that gets used on the cornfields right around McPherson. And that corn gets fed to pigs. Pigs make ham.

S. SMITH: So if we go eat a sandwich in town, we could be eating our oil.


S. SMITH: Really?


R. SMITH: Refineries are the reason that oil can be made into everything - our cellphones, clothes, cosmetics, medication, furniture.

S. SMITH: Sandwiches.

R. SMITH: Sandwiches - but most of the Planet Money oil is getting turned into good, old-fashioned gasoline. Once that happens, it will go via pipeline from the CHS refinery to its final destination, someone's gas tank.

S. SMITH: And where's this pipeline going?

BENGSTON: Council Bluffs.

S. SMITH: Where is that?


S. SMITH: Looks like we're going to Iowa.

R. SMITH: Iowa - tune into Morning Edition tomorrow to keep following the Planet Money oil pipeline. Robert Smith.

S. SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News, McPherson, Kans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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