Oil Refining in Port Arthur, TX

by Zakaria Imessaoudene, Colgate University, 2016

The Petropolis

Taking the words of Michael Ross, “petroleum wealth shapes the development of nations”[1]. This reliance on oil refineries and large energy companies to provide not just energy but also in developing the nation’s economy bestows them with a level of influence that is able to effect the dynamic of state politics. This reliance manifests itself into a drive for profit at all costs within these corporations. Thus this treadmill of production, the capitalist economic model that creates ecological and social due to the inherent drive to make a profit, becomes apparent[2]. Such a relationship can be observed in the interactions between local organizations and populations and these corporations within petropolises[3]. These petropolises become the unity between satellite towns and the regional economy that are composed of oil refineries and petrochemical plants such as Port Arthur, Texas[4].

Refineries have established themselves in Port Arthur's history
Refineries have established themselves in Port Arthur’s history (Luck 2009)



Port Arthur, Texas, a historical port city located east of Houston, has been an area where oil refining industries have been spewing pollutants and chemicals that have devastated the health of citizens within the vicinity due to various subsidies that promote the production of oil refining. Though these enterprises are supposed to bring with them employment opportunities, citizens living outside of the facilities have been plagued with not only pollutants but also, high rates of unemployment and poverty.

Effects of Automobile Culture

The situation revolving around Port Arthur can be understood through the analysis of how the oil industry has been able to establish its roots in American society. In David E. Nye’s work, he explores how Henry Ford’s economically efficient gas-powered car and mass production encouraged subsidiary investments in service stations which led to the “creation of a national network of companies selling tires, batteries…and automobiles themselves”[5]. As Nye put it, “acquiring “wheels”, proved [one’s] membership [into] the great middle class by owning a Ford or a Chevrolet, and announced [their societal movement]…by flaunting larger and more expensive cars”[6]. His analysis shows that cars became a social icon that defines one’s status in the socioeconomic hierarchy, but also shows the shift in purchasing larger cars. Furthermore, with this shift for more larger cars, the demand for fuel in the form of oil increases respectively.

Port Arthur, Texas is an example of these boomtowns as it established its first oil refinery, Texas Fuel Company (later known as Texaco), in 1902[7]. The industry to this day influences and in turn controls the local politics, economy and energy of not just the local area but the state.. According to Kethireddy et al., “[Texas] is the number one total energy producer in the nation and the sixth in total energy consumed per capita as of 2010”, which further supports the power that comes with reliance[8].

Ramifications of Oil Extraction and Refining

Oil extracting and refining companies have released chemicals throughout the air and within the surrounding waterways as “refining processes [depended] on water for cooling and washing, flowing water furnished a dumping ground, or sink, for unwanted by-products”[9]. “blackened rivers with fish floating belly-up and…decimated shellfish beds” began to spring up[10]. If the corporations were not spewing out chemicals into the air as a result of the of the refining processes, they resorted to igniting the refuse itself, bringing about a whole new spectrum of environmental harm. Ozone, or more specifically, tropospheric ozone is one such by-product of the refining process that has affected not only local communities but also global ones. McCoy et al. found that Total Petrochemicals, Premier Refining, and Motive Enterprise Refinery, all located within a three-mile radius, have contributed to upset emissions “equivalent to having an additional small refinery of 45,00-75,000 bbl/d (barrels per day) operating in the city”[11].

Smell of Progress
Scale of Port Arthur Refineries (Kimpel 2007)

The Manifestation of the Resource Curse

Research, citing the 2001 Toxic Release Inventory for Jefferson County, showed that “approximately 9.5 million pounds of chemicals [were] released [into the] air”[12]. After just a short-time exposure to the local air, “TNRCC [(Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission)] monitoring staff…noticed strong odors and experienced coughing, headaches, nausea, and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin”[13].

End of Road
Sheer Proximity to Refineries (Henderson 2014)

Further research found that out of a pool of 102 participants, the top five symptom categories felt in Port Arthur, Texas, were ear/nose/throat, cardiovascular, respiratory (excluded smokers), central nervous system and muscle/bone respectively[14]. What’s more is that the Texas Cancer Registry indicated that the cancer rates in Port Arthur were 15 percent greater than the average Texan[15]. With the data in place, it’s important to note that the population of Port Arthur is roughly at least 80 percent African American[16]. Out of the total African American population, 95 percent are heavily concentrated “in the shadow of the city’s refineries, [it] may be especially egregious, but it is hardly unique”[17]. Texas has a total African American population of only 12 percent, but more than 66 percent of those African American citizens reside near the state’s most harmful hazardous waste sites[18]. This report shows how oil, as a natural resource, produces problems, socially and health-wise.

The poverty rate in Port Arthur is high in comparison to the state average and is even higher in the African American community. In fact, “the oil and gas industry accounted for almost 7 percent of new jobs created nationwide…[however], Port Arthur’s unemployment rate nearly doubled over the same span”[19]. It turns out however, that most “companies promise to “give Port Arthur residents a fair opportunity to apply for employment”[20]. Interestingly enough, “one company’s pledge to use local labor and contractors defined “local” as conserving a nine-county region”[21]. Regardless, of this loophole, African Americans in Texas still make half of what the average Texan makes, thus showing that the rate of poverty will either stagnant or continue to increase as a result of this lack of equal opportunity[22]. Thus the concept of the resource curse comes into view as Bridge put it, the resource addresses the “apparent paradox of poor people amid resource abundance”[23]. Though the extraction of natural resources should develop the area around it, it ends up harming local communities.

Corporate Subsidies and Incentives

Companies such as Motiva, Total and Valero were given contracts stating that they will not need to pay property taxes for two out of the nine-year contract[24]. It becomes apparent that local political figures are incentivized to entice oil companies to invest in operating in the area. In fact, ex-mayor Oscar Ortiz defended the incentives by stating that “the main substance that keeps the city floating is the refineries”; however, his bias is not surprising when he responded to the growing health concerns of the residents of Port Arthur by stating, “We’ve all got to die of something”[25]. Such a statement is unfitting for a publicly elected figure.  Today it “has at least 28 tax-abatement deals with refineries and chemical plants”[26].

Green Movements and Grassroots Organizations

Recently, local organizations have sprouted in response to the corruption and injustices happening in Port Arthur. Community in-Power and Development Agency (CIDA), an organization that trains citizens to measure air quality, is the brainchild of West Port Arthur native, Hilton Kelley[27]. Over the last decade, Kelley has “succeeded in getting the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality to block a permit for a project at Premier…which would have added 525 tons of emission into the air”[28]. Through the use of grassroots organizations, citizens living under such harsh conditions have helped loosen the tight grip that oil refineries had in Port Arthur and the surrounding cities.

The full text of this paper is available here.


[1] Watts, M. (2012). A tale of two gulfs: life, death, and dispossession along two oil frontiers. American Quarterly, 64(3), 437-467: 437.

[2]  Mohai, P., Pellow, D., & Roberts, J. T. (2009). Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34, 405-430.

[3] Sellers, C. (2012). Petropolis and Environmental Protest in Cross-National Perspective: Beaumont–Port Arthur, Texas, versus Minatitlan-Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. Journal of American History, 99(1), 111-123 :111.

[4] Sellers (2012): 111

[5] Nye, D.E. 2001. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA: 176.

[6] Nye (2001): 181

[7] Sellers (2012): 115

[8] Kethireddy, S. R., Tchounwou, P. B., Ahmad, H. A., Yerramilli, A., & Young, J. H. (2014). Geospatial Interpolation and Mapping of Tropospheric Ozone Pollution Using Geostatistics. International journal of environmental research and public health, 11(1), 983-1000 : 985.

[9] Sellers (2012): 115

[10] Sellers (2012): 115

[11] McCoy, B. J., Fischbeck, P. S., & Gerard, D. (2010). How big is big? How often is often? Characterizing Texas petroleum refining upset air emissions. Atmospheric Environment, 44(34), 4230-4239: 4231.

[12] Morris, D. L., Barker, P. J., & Legator, M. S. (2004). Symptoms of adverse health effects among residents from communities surrounding chemical-industrial complexes in southeast Texas. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal, 59(3), 160-165 : 160.

[13] Morris et al. (2004): 161

[14] Morris et al. (2004): 163

[15] Genoways, T. (2013, August 26). If built, the Keystone XL pipeline would end in one toxic town. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from http://archive.onearth.org/articles/2013/08/if-built-the-keystone-xl-pipeline-will-end-in-one-toxic-town

[16] Morris et al. (2004): 163

[17] Genoways (2013)

[18] Genoways (2013)

[19] Genoways (2013)

[20] Rohr, M. (2007, October 23). Texas town has been defined by oil refineries. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/21420793/ns/us_news-environment/t/texas-town-has-been-defined-oil-refineries/#.Vtlqb5MrKCU

[21] Rohr (2007)

[22] Genoways (2013)

[23] Bridge, G. (2009). Material worlds: Natural resources, resource geography and the material economy. Geography Compass, 3(3), 1217-1244.

[24] Rohr (2007)

[25] Rohr (2007)

[26] Rohr (2007)

[27] Goldman Environmental Foundation. (n.d.). Hilton Kelley. Retrieved March 29, 2016, from http://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/hilton-kelley/

[28] Genowaygs (2013)


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