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Oil refineries are a Yellowstone County mainstay

There’s oil in Jill Quade’s blood.

A 26-year employee at ExxonMobil refinery in Lockwood, Quade grew up in a refinery home. Her mother, Janell Keeling, did lab work at the refinery. Quade donned the Exxon logo on sport uniforms as a child and even went to college on an Exxon scholarship.

Her story is one shared in Yellowstone County by thousands who know the perks of good pay and benefits, as well as the challenges of having parents who don’t work 9 to 5 jobs. The three refineries in Yellowstone County affect the fabric of the community in ways Quade said often go unnoticed.

Refineries are basically gigantic chemistry sets, pulling products such as diesel and fertilizer from crude oil. The people responsible for that chemistry are really smart. Their presence has been influencing Yellowstone County for more than 70 years.

“We have really skilled people out here, and to be able to interact with highly skilled people every day is rewarding,” said Quade, who stepped into refinery work straight out of Montana State University in 1989.

Oil has been coursing through Yellowstone County’s current refineries at least since 1930, which is when the Laurel Oil and Refining Co. began processing 2,500 barrels of crude a day. The refinery eventually became CHS. The crude came from oil plays in Wyoming and Montana. That regional oil development combined with Billings’ role as a railroad hub made Yellowstone County right for refineries in the 1930s, though war delayed the creation of Phillips 66 in Billings and ExxonMobil in Lockwood.

“The refinery was actually constructed in 1949 by Continental Oil, but it was planned in 1939,” said Shea Dawson of Phillips 66. “There was a hold-up because of World War II.”

The Continental refinery started small at 7,500 barrels of crude processed daily, a number similar to ExxonMobil’s beginnings, though Exxon didn’t begin where it’s now located.

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Dan Carter, Exxon spokesman, said the refinery was first erected by Carter Oil on the site of what’s now Yellowstone County Fairgrounds. The refinery changed hands twice, becoming Exxon in 1973, by which time the refinery had relocated to Lockwood.

All three refineries are on the small side, said Wade Johnson, a 30-year employee at the Phillips 66 refinery and past president of the United Steel Workers at the refinery. Each processes about 60,000 barrels of oil a day.

Johnson retired from the refinery this spring. There are several retirements in the works now, he said as workers who hired on three decades ago and never quite prepare to leave. He describes the work as demanding not only because of safety hazards associated with working with volatile substances, but also because of the rotating schedule of shift work. Rotating through night and day shifts in short order wears a worker down, Johnson said, though he always knew that there were men lined up at the gate to take his job if he quit. The pay is well above average, enough to allow families to live on a single income and have someone home raising children if that’s what’s preferred.

Roughly 28 percent of Yellowstone County’s manufacturing employment falls within the Petroleum and Coal Products Manufacturing Sector, according to the Montana Department of Labor Research and Analysis Bureau. The average wage in the industry was $121,092 in 2014.

“You don’t go to a car dealership and tell them you work at the refinery without having three salesmen trying to tackle you,” Johnson said.

Johnson started work as a pipefitter but got into operations after a while. He describes the refinery’s operations crew as “the guys that actually make the plants work, make the gasoline.” The guys who work on the giant towers at the refinery, where usable products are cooked from the coke until all that’s left is asphalt for road work? Those are the operations guys.

Like Quade, Johnson said he doesn’t think people realize how well educated and diverse the refinery workforce is. Making fuel presents new challenges daily.

“A lot of people don’t understand the diversity and intelligence that’s at the refinery, especially in operations. You have people with college degrees that you cannot imagine,” Johnson said.

The other thing people might not realize is that cars are rarely used on the sprawling refinery campuses. With the potential for a volatile chemical leaking from a pipe, the refinery prohibits use of cars with combustion engines in most areas.

The refinery crews get around their giant chemistry sets on bikes, with fat pedals and apple seats, one-speeds with pedal brakes like grandpa once rode.

Occasionally those bikes get misplaced.

“Every once in a while, a bike will come up missing and will turn up on top of one of the towers,” Johnson said.

How the bikes make it 100 feet up the tower no one will say.

This article was written by Tom Lutey from Billings Gazette, Mont. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.