New York — Virtually every refinery in Texas and some in Louisiana have seen their operations impacted as of Feb. 18 by the bone-chilling cold weather that has swept along the US Gulf Coast. And the forecast of more cold weather to come makes it difficult to predict when operations will return to normal.
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All of Texas' 5.9 million b/d of refinery capacity has felt some impact from the cold, according to filings made with state environmental regulators. Particularly impacted is the 5.1 million b/d of refinery capacity along the US Gulf Coast, but the almost 750,000 b/d of inland refining capacity has also reported operational hiccups from the cold.
Besides the extreme cold, lack of power has been a dilemma. The unseasonably cold weather has Texans turning on their space heaters, increasing demand while supply generated by natural gas plants, wind turbines, and nuclear and coal plants were paralyzed by record low temperatures.
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Because of the cold, most of Texas' large, sophisticated refineries on the coast stopped normal operations at the request of the power utilities in order to conserve power for consumers struggling to stay warm. Some of them even started sending power to the grid in order to add to generating capacity.
"Any units that remain in operation are dedicated to exporting electricity back into the grid or to generating the power necessary to keep our people, the community and units safe," said Todd Spitler, a spokesman for ExxonMobil Corporation.
Spitler said that the company is exporting back to the grid over 200 MW from its Baytown refinery and about 5 MW from its Beaumont plant, enough electricity to power approximately 100,000 homes and 3,500 homes, respectively.
Power begins to return
Power is being restored slowly, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said Feb. 18, with 40,000 MW of the state's 67,000 MW of power generation on "forced outage."
Of this, 23,500 MW is thermal generation and the rest is wind and solar. This is up from the 40,000 MW offline on Feb. 17, but ERCOT warned that it will take time to get supplies back to normal.
"It is possible some level of rotating outages may be needed over the next couple of days to keep the grid stable," ERCOT in a statement.
Texas had 2.7 million power outages late Feb. 17, but Feb. 18 outage-count data could be out of date as some systems were not providing updated data, according to Poweroutage.US, an aggregator of power outage data.
Bracing for another hard freeze
While temperatures have risen, Houston will see "another hard freeze" before temperatures return to normal, according to local weather forecasters.
"We're continuing to get closer to the end of this Arctic blast, but we are not there yet," said Space City Weather Feb. 18 on its website, adding that there is "the potential for a hard freeze tonight and again Friday night for areas well inland."
The onslaught of a new bout of cold weather combined with restoring power grid reliability means refiners are cautious about committing to a timeline for restart.
"We're taking a phased approach to a potential return to safe operations at Deer Park. While no timeline has been assigned for a restart of the facility, our site cogeneration plant continues to contribute to the grid," said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell's Deer Park facility.
Inland impacts and supply chain disarray
Inland Texas refiners are also experiencing cold-weather problems. And problems reported in company filings made with state regulators at the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality show varied weather-related impacts and their widespread effects.
Operating issues at Valero's McKee refinery and Marathon's El Paso plant are pulling barrels from California to supply ULSD to markets in places like Phoenix, Arizona, according to market sources.
In West Texas, Marathon reported to state regulators, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that its El Paso refinery had process unit shutdowns due to "equipment malfunctions attributed to extreme low temperatures experienced in El Paso."
And Valero reported to TCEQ extreme cold had impacted the "instrumentation and equipment" at its McKee refinery, in Sunray, located in northwest corner of the state.
At Delek's Big Spring refinery, located in the heart of the Permian Basin, the company reported in a TCEQ filing "process unit upsets associated with extreme weather conditions," despite the company preparing a "winterization protocol above the normal scope."
Some of the impacts felt by refiners are due to problems with supply, such as Phillips 66's Sweeny refinery, which said in its filing with state regulators that a "third party vendor suspended the primary source of nitrogen gas supply to the refinery."
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