Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fifth Anniversary - BP Texas City Refinery Explosion

On March 23, 2005, an Isomerization Unit at BP's Texas City (Texas) Refinery exploded, killing several people and injuring more than 100 others. Five years have now passed since that day, and it is well to pause to remember.

To those who lost family members and friends that day, we remember their loss and offer condolences. To those who were injured and survived, this is not likely to be a good memory. I hope that each has fully recovered and has a good life.

From the industry/government/legal standpoint, many things have happened. The refinery had a major overhaul, with more than $1 billion spent to improve safety. Other refineries saw this as a grim reminder of what could happen. I personally made several speeches to refining and engineering groups on this explosion and the legal effects, and heard more than once a top executive tell his forces that such an event would ruin the company. It appears that BP spent more than $4 billion to settle lawsuits, pay fines, and upgrade the refinery. Few corporations could survive such a financial hit. In a way, that is a very good thing, as it may have (and I believe it did) cause others in the industry to think and act to prevent such an event.

OSHA and Chemical Safety Board both stepped up their efforts in monitoring refineries to increase safety.

The industry is currently in a down economic phase, which is likely to persist for years. As I wrote here, crude oil runs to refineries has been decreasing since 2005, and is likely to continue as improved car mileage standards (CAFE) go into effect. One result of reduced refinery runs is positive, others not so positive. One positive is that refining equipment may not be pushed to the limit (not always true, but sometimes it is), which has an impact on process upsets. A negative effect is that refiners may cut maintenance expenditures to ease the financial losses, which can make refineries less safe. Some refineries are shutting down, as they are no longer profitable to operate. Meanwhile, at least three projects are underway in the USA to increase a refinery's capacity, although these were planned and started before the current economic recession. Added capacity will create more strain on the industry, creating additional losses.

One can only hope that decision-makers in the refineries will do the right thing, and shut the refinery down rather than let it run without proper maintenance. We do not need another explosion.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey

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