The Littlest Refinery
In Wyoming a tiny installation reveals the other side of an industry built on mass production
AS THIS ISSUE’S STORY on catalytic cracking shows, the triumph of America’s oilrefining industry in the twentieth century was based on two things: discovering clever new processes and then scaling them up to produce Yuige quantities. Yet alongside the mammoth refineries that pumped out high-octane gasoline to defeat the Axis, there were hundreds of small units distilling kerosene and heating oil for local communities, just as in the industry’s pioneer days. In isolated areas, especially those near oil fields, it often was cheaper to refine and distribute crude oil locally than to ship it to a major company’s facility.
One such town was Lusk, Wyoming. Lusk was a small ranching community until 1918, when oil was discovered near Lance Creek, about 20 miles away. A pipeline carried Lance Creek crude to the railhead at Lusk, where it was loaded into tank cars. At its peak in the early 1920s, Lusk’s population boomed to 10,000.
With the coming of the Depression, however, the Wyoming oil industry slumped. In 1933 Jim Hoblit and Roy Chamberlain, two employees of the Ohio Oil Company (a Lance Creek operator) who had been put on half time, opened their own plant in Lusk and called it C&H Refinery. The main building was a tin shack, 28 by 50 feet, containing a pair of stills whose outer cases had been made in the 185Os by the Erie City Iron Works, in Pennsylvania. The plucky little refinery, with a capacity of 190 barrels per day, managed to stay in business through depression, war, and the vicissitudes of the oil industry before closing for good in 1978. Then its final owner, Joe Chamberlain (no relation to Roy), started looking for someone to sell it to.
Surprisingly, the market for an outdated refinery one-thousandth the size of a modern one proved quite limited. Not until the arrival of the Internet could a buyer be found, and he was 12,000 miles away, in Islamabad, Pakistan. One day in 1998 Zahir Khalid, a businessman and former Pakistani air force fighter pilot, saw a sale notice for the C&H Refinery online. On a whim, and despite having no experience in anything remotely connected with oil refining, he responded. Within a few weeks he found himself in Lusk, viewing the rusty, overgrown site with dismay. Nonetheless, he made an offer, and as he later wrote, “the owner demanded immediate cash, probably because he did not believe that I was serious” (presumably thinking Khalid had traveled from Pakistan to Wyoming just for the hell of it). Khalid quickly arranged for the necessary financing, and a day later he was in the oil business.
Though the refinery was small, it was sophisticated. A honeycomb of pipes passed through the stills carrying superheated steam. These pipes heated the crude oil and boiled off successive fractions: water, naphtha, kerosene, and diesel. Steamdriven pumps kept the oil and distillation products circulating. The entire plant was built to run without electricity.
When Khalid bought the refinery, it was in the shape one would expect after 20 years of exposure to the elements. Working mostly from Pakistan, he led a team of volunteers and technical specialists in cleaning the site (including inside the boilers, a must for getting the refinery certified by environmental agencies) and restoring the machinery to working order. In June 2000 he put the plant through its first production run in two decades, just to show that it could be done (he has no plans to operate it as a going concern).
Since then the energetic Khalid has gotten the Lusk unit certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s smallest refinery and secured its listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Although Khalid has achieved wonders in restoring the C&H Refinery to working condition, his personal resources have been exhausted, and keeping it from further decay is another, ongoing struggle. A visit this fall left Khalid alarmed at the devastation wrought by the area’s fierce weather. Students and faculty from the University of Wyoming hope to document the site, but much more time and money will be needed to ensure its safety in the long term. Anyone interested in helping preserve this monument to the oil industry’s numerous small operators can e-mail Khalid at stak@isb. compol.com or fax him at 011-925-128-1005.