Behind Closed Doors: Valero Refinery

Published 02/05 2014 02:50PM

Updated 02/06 2014 03:46PM

MEMPHIS, TN ( - Hundreds of thousands of people drive millions of miles on Mid-South roads every day. Most of us in cars powered by gasoline.

When we fill up, we almost always look at the price. But probably don't give a lot of thought to where it comes from.

Thousands of drivers fly by the Valero refinery everyday. On their way to work, to fun, to family, or to deliver the goods. The Mid-South is constantly in motion.

But eventually most of those trips involve a gas pump.

Exxon, BP, Shell, or mystery brand. It doesn't matter. Almost all of it comes from the same place. The Valero refinery south of downtown Memphis.

“We produce 3,000,000 gallons of gasoline a day,” general manager of Valero Memphis Mark Skobel said.

It is a liquid assembly-line. And it is a big one. The refinery is an astonishing maze of pipes, tubes, tanks, pumps, boilers, and towers spread across 250 acres a few miles south of downtown Memphis.

Crude oil comes in by barge and pipeline. Then it gets cooked until it boils.

“As it vaporizes, it rises in the columns that you see here and the lighter material goes up to the top,” Skobel said.

Almost all the fuel used in the Mid-South is made here. There is even a direct pipeline to sending jet fuel to Memphis International Airport.

Gasoline and diesel is carried off in almost 300 trucks a day loading up at Valero's truck rack, the largest in the United States.

“We employ 500 people here, 300 Valero people and 200 contractors. We have an annual payroll of $45 million. So it is a big piece of the economy here,” Skobel said.

"Will" Monroe-Smith, Junior is a plant operator. The part of the team that works in this blast proof control room keeping the "liquid assembly line moving."

“The challenge, I guess, is keeping it safe. Keep it safe, and keeping the men safe,” Smith said.

"Will" has worked at the refinery 39 years and remembers an early career day at his daughter's school.

“The kids asked her what her daddy did and she said he makes gasoline. You know they say, naw, he pumps gasoline,” Smith said.

General manager Mark Skobel said there is not really a school that teaches refinery operation.

So, every couple of years, Valero hires a few people and starts teaching them how to run the place.

Here are some interesting facts:

- It takes about 60 days for a gallon of crude at the well to become a gallon of fuel in your tank.

- Our gas is slightly cheaper in the Mid-South. Probably two or three cents because the local refinery means lower transportation costs to the pumps.

- Mark Skobel said when he got into the oil business in 1977, there were 300 refineries. Now there are 140.

- Building a refinery from scratch today would take about five to six years, if you could get past all the regulatory hurdles.

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