By Kris Axtman writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
This week's deadly blast at an oil refinery south of Houston, the area's worst such disaster in 15 years, has put a fresh focus on questions about the age and safety of America's oil refineries.
The blast at the British Petroleum refinery rocked the Texas City area Wednesday, leaving more than a dozen dead and more than 100 injured. The explosion sent plumes of black smoke high into the air and shattered windows of nearby homes and buildings.
The industry seems to be holding its breath, and experts warn against premature conclusions until the cause of the blast is known. Whether it was worn-out equipment or human error could make a big difference in how the accident is perceived and dealt with.
"But either way, this is the accident we are always worrying about," says Robert Ebel, chairman of the Energy Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. "It shows the very, very slim balance between oil supply and demand right now."
It's important to note that chemical plants, even with all the careful safety procedures, are dealing with dangerous explosive materials and machinery.
They require annual or semiannual inspection and maintenance, but the newest are at least 25 years old - brought online during the oil boom of the mid-1970s. Many are even older. The BP plant, for instance, began operating as an oil refinery in 1934 under another owner.
But because of the 1990 Clean Air Act and the changing requirements for cleaner gasoline products, many of these refineries have been highly upgraded with new equipment and technology.
Even so, there continue to be sporadic accidents and problems at these plants. This is the second accident this year at the sprawling BP plant in Texas City, for instance. …