Energy & Environment

Pasadena Refinery Linked To Scandal In Brazil Needs A New Pollution Permit

A Houston-area oil refinery with a troubled past is asking for a new permit to pollute. But that’s just part of the story.


Petrobras's Pasadena Refining System plant is near the Washburn Tunnel on the Houston Ship ChannelDave Fehling | Houston Public Media
Petrobras’s Pasadena Refining System plant is near the Washburn Tunnel on the Houston Ship Channel

Even though it’s not the biggest refinery along the Houston Ship Channel, the facility known as the Pasadena Refining System has attracted attention here and internationally as well.

“It is one of the smaller ones, but it is disproportionately responsible for pollution,” says Adrian Shelley, director of Air Alliance Houston, an environmental group.

Shelley’s group is working to get nearby residents to attend a public hearing later this month. It’s being held by the Texas Commission on Environment Quality, the TCEQ, to hear testimony about whether Pasadena Refining System should be granted a new permit to emit air pollution.

Over the years, the TCEQ says it has investigated and cited the facility many times. In 2012, the agency slapped it with a $757,000 penalty. Then, in a case that’s still on-going (see the document below), a $405,000 penalty has been proposed for what the commission said were the “unauthorized” releases of hundreds of thousands of pounds of air pollutants including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that can cause smog and hurt people with breathing problems. 

But when it comes to the Pasadena Refining System plant, it’s not just pollution that’s an issue. If you’ve watched the TV news in Brazil, you almost surely would have heard about the little refinery up in Texas.

“You couldn’t miss it if you were in Brazil,” says Bill Arnold, a former Shell Oil executive who teaches at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business.

“Well in 2006 Petrobras bought the refinery; Petrobras being the national oil company of Brazil. And they paid something on the order of a billion dollars for it despite the fact that only two years earlier it had sold for less than $50 million,” says Arnold.

Sound suspicious? Brazilian authorities thought so and began investigating allegations of huge kickbacks. There’ve been dozens of indictments as prosecutors probed the Pasadena refinery purchase and other deals made by Petrobras.

“It links politicians, business people, and Petrobras, which has been the source of national pride for a long time,” says Arnold.

But will the on-going scandal in Brazil play a role in whether Texas grants a pollution permit to the Petrobras refinery in Pasadena? The TCEQ tells us no, it does not foresee any impact.

What the TCEQ will consider is what is far from Brazil, but so very near the Pasadena refinery: people like Raymon Alanis. He’s lived in this area east of Houston for 15 years, an area dominated by refineries and petrochemical plants where he says odd odors make him wonder what’s in the air.

 “(It’s a) nasty, nasty smell, an unexplainable smell that the refinery gives,” say Alanis.

The environmental groups say they’ll be trying to get residents like him to attend the hearing which is set to be held in Pasadena on January 28th.

Petrobras’s Houston office told us it had no comment about the upcoming hearing.

2015 TCEQ  proposed order for enforcement action

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Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Energy and Environment Reporter

Based in the world's energy capital, broadcast and digital journalist Dave Fehling is heard on public radio stations in Houston and throughout Texas, reporting on the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. After nearly three decades in television that included reporting for CBS News, Fehling joined...

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