Focusing on Relief Efforts, Continued Safe Operations

August 29, 2017

Energy Forum Note:
If you would like to donate to support those affected by Hurricane Harvey:
Red Cross for Hurrican Harvey

United Way of Houston
Salvation Army


In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the primary focus along the Texas Gulf Coast is on search and rescue efforts and – with expectations that more flooding is ahead – providing shelter and other basic needs for those displaced by the storm and its effects. Energy companies, which themselves have thousands of employees living in the area, are helping support organizations such as the Red Cross, the United Way of Houston and others that provide emergency services. Information links:

Meanwhile, the storm’s impacts on one of the country’s key energy centers are being reckoned. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, as of early Monday all six refineries in the Corpus Christi area were shut down and four in the Houston/Galveston area were in the process of shutting down. That’s a combined refining capacity of more than 2.1 million barrels per day, or nearly 12 percent of total U.S. refining capacity. In addition, two other Houston/Galveston area refineries and one in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area were operating at reduced rates.

As this event develops, the availability of supplies will depend on damage that may have occurred because of the storm. At the same time, the United States' natural gas and oil infrastructure is large, geographically diverse and integrated into the larger global market. While typical supply patterns may be disrupted, alternate paths may be available.

It’s unclear how long refinery constraints in the impacted area will continue. In some cases, a refinery may be safe to bring back online, but crude oil, electricity to run the plant and water to cool the process units might not be immediately available due to flooding or other factors.

Taking a refinery off line and then restarting it are complex operations in which safety is paramount. Here’s a sequence of steps and factors that helps illustrate that complexity:

  • In the hours before a large storm like Hurricane Harvey makes landfall, refiners usually will evacuate all non-essential personnel and begin shutting down or reducing operations. Even operations in areas not in the forecast zone are shut down or curtailed because a storm may suddenly change direction.
  • Once a facility is deemed safe by experts, teams arrive to assess whether there has been damage and/or flooding. Any damage must be repaired before the refinery can come back online. 
  • As noted above, the refinery must have access to crude oil to process, electricity and water.
  • The process of restarting a refinery can take several days. Safety is ensured by returning the facility’s process units and associated equipment to operation in specific stages. 
  • After repairs are made and it’s determined that ancillary facilities – such as pipelines that carry oil and natural gas from the refinery – are ready to accept shipments, production can be restarted.

Given the need during an emergency to provide as much fuel as possible to the affected area to quicken the recovery, temporary waivers from certain regulations may be considered. From industry’s preparedness handbook:

The oil and natural gas industry operates under a myriad of regulations to ensure safe operations, environmental quality and fair market competition. The industry has a deep commitment to complying with all regulations, all of the time, regardless of external conditions. However, during the response to an event affecting system integrity, some regulations can impede the quick restoration of services when access to specific resources is limited or workers and equipment are needed from other areas.

The Energy Department reports that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality sought and received waivers for the requirements for reformulated gasoline, Reid vapor pressure and Texas Low Emission Diesel that apply in some affected counties. These waivers, which are scheduled to expire Sept. 15, will help provide fuel in storm-impacted areas, helping to expedite recovery efforts.

Now, some of the other things we’re reading on Hurricane Harvey:

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