The Challenges of Containing Oil and Other Petrochemicals

Oil and its byproducts are some of the most challenging liquids to contain. Not only is the liquid fast-moving enough to escape many well-designed containment effects, but oil is also long-lasting when it makes it into the soil or water. Its negative effects on the environment can last for years, even after remediation attempts. Oil and other hydrocarbons also tend to break down the materials used to contain them. Between corrosion and the risk of fire, there’s plenty of challenges to containing oil and other petrochemicals. Make sure your oil containment systems are designed to withstand all of the following challenges that face most storage, processing, and transfer facilities.


The sheer volume of oil being stored at many facilities makes it difficult to build appropriately sized containment. Secondary oil containment requirements vary from state to state, but they’re often set by the volume stored in addition to the type of storage. For example, the Spill Prevention, Control, and Containment (SPCC) regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) apply to any facility with a total above ground storage of 1,320 gallons or more. If you rely solely on buried and below ground storage facilities, the SPCC regulations don’t apply until you’re handling 42,000 gallons at a time or more.

Material Breakdown

Many of the conditions common to oil containment are naturally damaging to the materials used for liners. When the containment liner is damaged or compromised over time, invisible leaks form that are hard to detect with a visual inspection alone. All liners used for oil containment are at risk for damage from abrasion since many oil byproducts are full of sharp particles. The polymers used for lining containment basins and ponds also tend to react to hydrocarbons like oil and suffer premature breakdown. If the liner is installed so it is exposed to sunlight, constant UV exposure will accelerate the decomposition and the development of leaks as well. You can prevent all of these problems and more by choosing a flexible liner designed for oil containment.

Recovery for Reuse

Letting oil or byproducts like produced water slip away into the environment is a waste of valuable materials. Proper containment will capture and filter out valuable oil from wastewater and other hazardous materials. If oil escapes the intended containment system and exits through a general drainage system, it’s usually lost for reuse and can only be re-mediated to limit the damage. A properly lined containment and drainage system will hold the oil and byproducts securely for recovery and prevent loss and mixing.

Space Limitations

Oil storage and refining facilities are generally stretched for space and have little extra space for bulky containment measures. Installing a buried liner or retrofitting an existing site drainage system to serve as containment is often the best way to work around these kinds of limits. If there’s no way to install the required containment measures in the current space, it may be necessary to remove some tanks and pipelines. Flexible liners help reinforce containment measures that are squeezed tightly between other fixtures and features without compromising fluid control.


Oil is often extracted and refined in arctic regions with extremely low temperatures making it challenging to keep containment measures in place. Liners become brittle and crack easily at these low temperatures, even from something as simple as the warmth of sunlight suddenly hitting the frozen material. On the opposite end of the spectrum, extremely high temperatures also threaten to damage liners installed for containment at many refining and processing facilities. Many storage tanks are heated to reduce the viscosity of the oil so it’s easier to pump wherever it’s needed. Even concrete and asphalt containment dikes can break down or fail when exposed to high temperatures for long periods. The most durable secondary oil containment measures should be able to handle both temperature extremes.

Above and Below Grade Features

Most oil storage and processing facilities combine both above and below grade containment measures in one system. Above grade containment features like liners are exposed to direct weathering and UV rays, while below grade materials are strained by the weight of the structures above. You’ll likely need different specifications for the above and below grade oil containment liners, even if you’re using the same basic products and supplier for both. Make sure that above grade containment liners are designed for exposed installation, even if the designs call for covering them, so that leaks or lost cover material won’t compromise the system.

Fire Suppression

While ponds and retention basins often double as fire suppression features when filled with water, oil is flammable instead. This means that secondary containment systems often integrate fire suppression to protect oil, fuel, and other flammable fluids for safety. Re-routing rainwater captured by the containment system can provide you with built-in fire suppression with only the addition of some sensors and sprinklers. Produced water and other byproducts of the oil drilling and fracturing industries are generally nearly as flammable as crude oil itself, requiring special handling and containment as well.

Extra Water Flow

The rainwater mentioned above for potential fire suppression must be considered when planning for containment regardless of its eventual discharge or use. Containment basins and lined areas will quickly fill after a few serious rainstorms unless there’s proper drainage to release the clean water without allowing any oil or residues to escape. Most containment systems covering large areas will need both discharge controls and thorough filtration to prevent accidental loss of oil to the environment. Without proper drainage and planning, water overflow will wash leaked oil out of the containment area and cause it escape into the surrounding area. Sizing for most facilities begins at accommodating the volume of the single largest container plus standard area precipitation. The SPCC standards call for accommodations to handle the rainfall of a “25-year, 24-hour storm event”.

These challenges shouldn’t stop oil companies from addressing the containment needs of their facilities. While each issue requires the right approach when designing your oil containment system, optimizing these features also reduces the total cost of maintenance and repairs for the lifespan of the installations. Make an investment in your oil containment efforts by choosing flexible liners from BTL Liners that can handle the reactive effects of hydrocarbons and oil.

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ArmorPro is built with the toughest materials for absolute and total containment.

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