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Harvey Update: Starting the Refinery Restart Process

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 31, 2017

The Gulf Coast area impacted by Hurricane-Tropical Storm Harvey faces a long recovery road, with thousands displaced and so many neighborhoods and workplaces inaccessible due to floodwaters. Humanitarian relief efforts are under way, but there’s much work to be done. While Americans across the country are concerned about the human toll left by Harvey, we’re particularly mindful of thousands of colleagues in the natural gas and oil industry who work and live in affected areas.

In that light, it’s a glimmer of good news that a few of the refineries forced to shut down because of the storm are starting the complex process of restarting – six as of Thursday morning, according to the U.S. Energy Department, with a combined capacity of more than 1.2 million barrels per day or about 4.2 percent of total U.S. refining capacity.

API President and CEO Jack Gerard talked about impacts to Gulf Coast refineries and the restart process in an interview with CNBC:

Gerard:

“These are large, sophisticated, high-tech complexes, and so they do it in phases. And as they graduate from phase to the next, it typically takes a few days to do so. And they do that out of an abundance of caution. Some of these have had severe flooding, but they need to make sure the supply chain is there. … We need to make sure we’re able to move the product, to receive the [crude oil] necessary to process, to refine.”

So, it’s a start. Getting a refinery back online isn’t like flipping on a light switch. The process is complex, and requires a series of careful steps to protect refinery workers, communities and the environment. Industry’s goal is to keep the marketplace well-supplied while ensuring the highest level of safety. Let’s take a closer look at the refinery restarting process:

  • Preparation – Thanks to advanced weather forecasting, refinery managers generally can prepare for the protection of equipment, shut down safely and pre-position process units to enable a safer and more efficient restart once a facility becomes accessible and damage assessments can be made.
  • Access – Personnel need the ability to access the refinery, both from a security and transportation perspective.
  • Assessment – Equipment, tanks, instrumentation and control systems, pressure relief devices and other systems are checked for damage.
  • Personnel – Restarting a refinery is dependent on the availability of properly trained personnel to inspect the facility and to make repairs, if needed.
  • Resources – Before a refinery can be restarted, there must be crude oil available for processing and electricity to run the plant. Some refineries have cogeneration capabilities to generate their own electricity, but often it isn’t enough to fully operate the plant. Natural gas must be available to power heaters and furnaces, water for cooling the process units and steam for pumps, compressors and turbines to generate electricity. Instrumentation, electric motors and other equipment that’s especially sensitive to water damage must be checked and, if necessary, repaired or replaced.
  • Procedures – Before restarting a refinery process unit, sites will follow a series of robust procedures. This includes conducting a thorough pre-restart safety review and using appropriate “management of change” processes, among other steps.
  • Safety and Environment – Flares and other pressure relief devices are used to safely eliminate excess gases and manage equipment pressure to keep operations safe and stable. If flaring is needed, it is conducted in a controlled manner in accordance with federal and state environmental regulations and may be covered by the refinery’s operating permit.

The Gulf Coast refinery sector – like the rest of the Gulf Coast impacted by Harvey – has a ways to go to recover. Refineries were shut down to help ensure safety. Bringing them back online is done in a staged, methodical manner to maintain safety.

Again, the long-range goal is restoring a significant piece of the United States’ refining sector. In the past, big-weather events such as Harvey that have led to refinery shutdowns have affected fuel prices in the short term. But, nationwide, our energy infrastructure system is large, geographically diverse and integrated into the larger global market. Current inventories of crude oil and refined products are relatively high, and these supplies may help offset storm-related supply disruptions to both. While issues could arise if infrastructure constraints restrict access in certain regions, these national inventories may help offset supply disruptions caused by the storm.

Some of the other things we’re reading about Hurricane-Tropical Storm Harvey:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.