By Dan Wallach
PORT ARTHUR – A microscopic crack – too small for the human eye – has scuttled the $10 billion Motiva Port Arthur Refinery expansion project for almost half a year.
By the end of this month, Motiva’s chief executive, Bob Pease, hopes to have all repairs made and the new crude unit fully functional by spring – almost a year after the unit was commissioned.
If all goes according to plan, Motiva Port Arthur will become the nation’s largest refinery, producing more than 600,000 barrels per day or double its existing capacity.
That is enough crude to annually supply the gasoline needs of France, Italy and Scandinavia combined, one executive had said at the unit’s commissioning earlier this year.
But its production is intended for the United States.
Additionally, the refinery should have the mechanical flexibility to make fuel from any kind of crude in the world from the best quality to the sludgiest, most sulfurous gunk a well might cough up.
On June 11, the refinery suffered what might be called its Apollo 13 moment.
Motiva’s vice president for manufacturing, Steve Rathweg, said Port Arthur refinery manager Greg Willms called him at Motiva’s Houston corporate headquarters to tell him that a caustic solution feeding into a new crude oil distillery was vaporizing under intense heat. That caused internal welds to crack. That caused leaks. Vapor was escaping.
A small fire on June 5 had caused the crude feed into the new distillation unit, the expansion’s centerpiece, to shut down.
But the pump design didn’t close the caustic door and no one had anticipated that it wouldn’t, Rathweg said.
The distillation unit’s heaters caused the caustic solution to vaporize, and that cracked the welds, he said. Those cracks are microscopically small, Rathweg said, but the damage was there and could not be ignored.
The trouble was spotted by an operator who was leaving his control building and noticed vapors rising from the unit that should not have been there, Rathweg said. He returned and told others they needed to check the status and discovered the caustic pump was still feeding into the distillation unit.
Rathweg and Bob Pease, Motiva’s president and chief executive, visited the refinery Friday to talk about the incident, the recovery and repairs and expected restart.
They had attended a formal commissioning ceremony on May 31, that brought in Khalid A. Al-Falih, president and CEO of Saudi Aramco, whose subsidiary, Saudi Refining, is half owner of Motiva along with Shell Oil Co. Peter Voser, chief executive of Shell, also attended the commissioning.
Al-Falih said the refinery project was the largest single expansion of U.S. refining capacity in four decades. Executives were confident it would recoup the massive investment.
Now the expansion will be at least six months behind schedule and it has caused interruptions in tanker bookings and in crude production meant for Port Arthur.
When the expansion was planned, equipment was purpose-built for it in yards from Maine to Mexico. Pressure vessels were built abroad and shipped in. Motiva had to scramble to find replacement parts and was able to locate what it needed within four or five months from all over the world.
“It tells you the global reach we have,” Rathweg said.
On Friday, executives shared what they had learned from the incident with its other installations around the world to ensure that there was no repeat of it. Rathweg said there are no other Gulf Coast refineries with the faulty design.
He also said no operators lost their jobs as a result of the pump problem. He said it was a design flaw in the pump and that operators – even though they had worked out myriad combinations of scenarios – were not trained to anticipate what caused the caustic feed to remain open when the crude pump was shut.
“One small thing can cause a big problem,” he said.
Pease would not comment on the cost of repairs. Other sources, including Reuters News Service, have cited $1 billion.
Motiva has used about 1,400 construction workers from local contractors to make the repairs. The 300 operators who were hired as part of the expansion to run the new equipment also remained employed, Pease said.
The refinery always operated throughout the construction period and the repair, churning out 285,000 barrels per day and other units associated with the expansion are continuing to operate, Pease said.
Rathweg said the fix is forever.
“We completely redesigned the system,” he said. “This will never happen in Port Arthur again.”