Hurricane Harvey’s damage to refineries and its impact on NDT technicians

Much of the USA’s refinery capacity and chemical production has been concentrated along the swamps and narrow inlets of the Gulf of Mexico, risking devastation in a monster storm. The recent pounding endured by coastal Texas raises questions about the area’s role as a hub for such crucial and environmentally-sensitive industries.

The Texas and Louisiana coasts took on their vital role because they link vast oil and gas resources, both inland and offshore, with Caribbean and Atlantic shipping channels. However, the damage from Harvey, which arrived with hurricane force, has exposed a downside: vulnerability to storms that experts say are becoming more extreme because of climate change.

The hurricane took a third of US refinery capacity offline for days on end and the energy sector will have to consider the costs of additional hardening of the infrastructure on the Gulf Coast versus moving to a different location, such as the Eastern Seaboard.

The damage, detailed in state and federal regulatory filings, is wide ranging: escaping gasoline from a submerged roof at a Phillips 66 storage tank; a sinking tank roof at ExxonMobil’s vast refinery in Baytown, which resulted in the release of hazardous gases, including volatile organic compounds and benzene, above permitted levels; and a lightning strike that disrupted operations and led to toxic gas releases at a Dow Chemical plant in Freeport.

The environmental fall-out could get worse. The USA could be forced to import more gasoline and other refined products. A chemical industry that has been expanding rapidly because of cheap natural gas from shale fields could be slowed, or even stalled, if oil and natural gas prices spike. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, along with electric cars, could get a major lift.
Nearly every major Texas and Louisiana refinery has been partly or completely shut down because of damage or for safety reasons, suppressing the daily production of at least 2.6 million barrels of refined petroleum products. At least seven major refineries are out of commission and Morningstar estimated that 11 more refineries, with a combined capacity to produce 1.3 million barrels per day, risked closing, including the nation’s largest, the Saudi Aramco-Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, Texas.
The port of Houston is closed until at least the end of the week, a major hit to both energy imports and exports. The situation may be far worse in the port of Corpus Christi, which could be crippled for some time since a drill ship broke loose from some tugboats and ran aground in the narrow shipping channel near Port Aransas, perhaps the most threatened choke point on the entire coast. Several long-haul pipelines that take the crude oil from the Permian Basin to coastal refineries have shut down, which could eventually force production companies to slow their operations.

Other parts of the USA are much less supportive of the oil & gas industry. This is one of the primary reasons that refineries and natural gas import and export facilities were concentrated in the region in the first place. Texans, as well as others in the region, have depended on the industry for their livelihoods for generations.

At the Baytown Refinery, one of the biggest in the country, ExxonMobil said in its filing that workers were racing to empty the tank with the damaged roof and repair the roof itself. Phillips 66 said it was drawing down gasoline levels to a minimum at its tank. Dow Chemical said it was taking precautions at its Freeport chemical plant to minimise emissions after the lightning strike.

Separately, at least a dozen facilities were flaring or burning off excess gas that had nowhere to go, because production at the sites had stalled or because other gas plants in the area had shut down. Flaring from the Baytown Refinery, among many others, is emitting excess levels of nitrous oxides.
The damage underscores how the companies often held responsible for contributing to global warming could increasingly suffer from its effects. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 were a precursor, causing spills of 750,000 gallons of petroleum products from offshore platforms, rigs and pipelines, according to estimates by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

ExxonMobil, the world’s largest refiner, said in a 2015 ‘corporate citizenship’ report that it designs its structures with changes of weather in mind. Recently, the company said in a statement that: “The Baytown complex has completed the safe shutdown of the majority of its operations” and that: “ExxonMobil’s primary focus continues to be the safety of its employees, contractors and the communities in the affected areas.”

There is a direct and immediate effect on oil workers and, specifically, NDT technicians, employed by contractors who provide the majority of the workforce that conducts the day-to-day inspection activities in the refineries and chemical plants. In the longer term, the amount of remedial activity required to restore the plants to a safe functioning capability may boost the need for additional technicians, although there looks to be an initial reduction in technician employment.

These same NDT technicians, whose livelihood is threatened by the reduction of employment opportunities, are also residents of the areas surrounding the refineries hit hardest by the storm damage. Loss of homes and property and other extensive damage, often not covered by insurance, has affected these technicians, along with every inhabitant of the region.

The response to the damage and loss of property has been considerable and generous. This scribe will be following the progress of recovery in the region, as it affects both the industry and, particularly, the oil field workers.

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