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What green tech was supposed to be…

Byron Ki

From a newsletter:

Every now and then, I drive from Pittsburgh up to Youngstown, Ohio to visit family friends.

I used to tell people that I was doing “industrial archaeology” because the drive takes me through numerous old, Rust-Belt areas of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Then of course, there’s Youngstown — ground zero for the Rust Belt. Really, if ever a city hit hard times over a couple of generations, it was Youngstown.

Lately, though, I’ve changed my description.

When I head up towards Youngstown, I tell people that I’m time-travelling to the future. That’s because Youngstown, and many other cities and towns along the way, are transforming. That is, the “shale gale” energy boom — including development of the nearby Marcellus and Utica oil and gas plays — is pumping billions of new dollars into otherwise old, worn-out economies. The results are stunning.

For example, near Youngstown, the French company Vallourec has built a new plant to process oilfield tubular goods. The gigantic facility cost over $650 million to build. Now it cranks out 350,000 tons of steel oil pipe and related products per year.

Even more impressive, this is no dirty, grimy old industrial shed, like those that formerly dotted the region for much of the past century. No, this Vallourec site is almost a “clean room” environment, filled with high-tech jobs that pay impressive wages. (And you should see some of the souped-up pickup trucks in the employee parking lot!)

When I travel to other parts of the country, I see much the same thing. For example, I visit Houston on a regular basis, for all manner of energy conferences and company-visits. When I’m down in Houston, I certainly know my way around the city’s famed “refinery row,” going back to my days with Gulf Oil Co. in the late 1970s.

In fact, there’s this one refinery off the Southeast Loop, I-610, just down Route 225. It’s an old site, first built-up in 1918 by the famed oil man Harry Sinclair. Later, the refinery became part of deal between Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) and the former Cities Service Co. (now CITGO).


A decade ago, this facility was showing its age. At first glance, it came across as one of those old industrial dinosaurs (speaking of the old Sinclair Oil Co.) that were dying out across the uneconomic landscape of America. But today, under new management and with hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades, this site is among the most advanced refineries in the world. In fact, this old — but much remodeled — refinery takes high-sulfur crude oil and turns it into clean, reformulated gasoline and super-low-sulfur diesel. That, and a host of other advanced, value-added chemicals. All that, and it’s a key source for value-added exports that benefit the U.S. economy.

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