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In hours, caustic vapors wreaked quiet ruin on biggest U.S. refinery

The Motiva Enterprises oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters. On June 9, during repairs to a minor leak at the refinery, the inadvertent introduction of a small volume of caustics ultimately caused what could be billions of dollars of damage to the plant.
The Motiva Enterprises oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters. On June 9, during repairs to a minor leak at the refinery, the inadvertent introduction of a small volume of caustics ultimately caused what could be billions of dollars of damage to the plant.Reuters

Reuters has the inside story on what caused a new state-of-the-art oil refinery – the biggest U.S. refinery built in the U.S. in a decade -- in Port Arthur, Texas, to shut down 11 days ago. The villain, according to the working theory developed by plant managers: "accelerated chemical corrosion." 

The impact of the shutdown could be felt by the partners in the refinery – Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco division Motiva – as well as U.S. drivers, as every day the plant remains closed equates to 144 million miles worth of gasoline that isn't being supplied to the U.S. market during the height of the driving season:

Excerpts from the report by Reuters reporter Erwin Seba:

In the end, all it took was a small chemical spill -- perhaps less than a barrelful -- to bring down the newest, mightiest oil refinery in the United States. 

Three weeks ago, while workers repaired a minor leak at the Port Arthur, Texas, plant owned by Motiva Enterprises, a few gallons a day of so-called "caustic" was inadvertently seeping into the newly built crude distillation unit (CDU), the 30-story-high network of interconnected cylinders and latticed pipelines at the heart of the refining process.

While harmless when mixed with crude, the undiluted caustic vaporized into an invisible but devastating agent of corrosion as the chamber heated up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit (370 Celsius); the chemical gas raced through key units, fouled huge heaters and corroded thousands of feet of stainless steel pipe.

Now, just weeks after they commissioned the biggest U.S. refinery project in a decade, two of the world's biggest oil titans -- Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco, which own Motiva -- are rushing to repair the potentially billion-dollar glitch that has added an embarrassing and costly coda to a landmark $10 billion expansion.

After a five-year effort to double the plant's capacity, making it the largest in the country, they must now reassemble many of the same people and parts for a blitzkrieg fix that may exceed the original $300 million cost of the unit: corrosion experts are flying in from across the world; hundreds of workers are being hired; bespoke 30-inch stainless steel pipelines and 30-story cranes may need to be obtained quickly, according to sources involved in the repairs.

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