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Refiners' storm plans greatly improved, NPRA president says

Nick Snow
Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 14 -- Refiners have greatly enhanced their storm preparation procedures in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, reported National Petrochemical & Refiners Association Pres. Charles T. Drevna to a US Senate committee May 13.

"Almost every refinery on the Gulf Coast has performed process analyses of the time it takes to enact a full shutdown procedure, which tells how long it takes to drain the tanks of inventory to prevent leakage or fill them with water to ensure buoyancy and minimize damage to the tanks and surrounding equipment," he said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Facilities monitor the projected path of each storm during hurricane season and react accordingly, with different levels of reaction depending on how far the storm is out to sea, he continued. "The process is based on the idea of a trip wire: If it takes a plant 36 hours to empty its tanks of inventory and fill them with water, and if the plant is in the storm arc 36.5 hours out, shutdown procedures are enacted," he said.

Drevna testified at a hearing to examine climate-change impacts on the reliability, security, economics and design of critical energy infrastructure in coastal regions. "A significant portion of our nation's critical energy infrastructure is concentrated in coastal areas that are vulnerable to natural hazards and changes in climate. This infrastructure forms the heart of a nationally and globally interdependent energy system," committee chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), said in his opening statement.

'Absolutely appropriate'
While meteorologists have questioned whether storm intensity and global climate change are related, it's "absolutely appropriate" to discuss refiners' efforts to protect infrastructure from the elements, Drevna said. "Katrina and Rita severely damaged the region's infrastructure and economy, to say nothing of the tragic loss of life and displacement of residents. The refining industry was not spared the effects, yet we responded quickly and effectively to the dangers and challenges posed by these storms," he told the committee.

No significant, long-lived transportation fuel shortage occurred despite serious damage because the federal government temporarily waived regulatory requirements and released oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and because oil producers, pipelines, and refiners and their employees worked hard to bring significant assets back into service quickly, he continued.

Refiners first determined that employees and their families were safe, he said. Many provided shelter, supplemented housing allowances, and loans. "Indeed, many plants that were 'shut-in' had employees live on site for several weeks," Drevna said, noting that Valero Energy Corp.'s plant in Port Arthur, Tex., housed more than 1,000 of its workers while it was being brought back on-line.

Refiners also temporarily expanded their workforces at affected installations by bringing in employees from other plants as well as contractors, he said. "Restarting a plant is more complex and potentially dangerous than normal operations because it involves increased heat and pressure. Consequently, restarting a refinery requires additional workers to monitor and perform necessary procedures," he explained.

In addition to restoring operations at damaged plants, to meet demand, refiners also worked to increase production at installations that had not been damaged, Drevna said in his written testimony. "For many plants, this meant delaying planned maintenance in order to continue production. Refineries typically perform scheduled maintenance throughout the year in order to maintain and repair equipment, but in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita many delayed this so they could supplement reduced refining capacity," he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.


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