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The Resiliency of US Refining through 2017 Hurricane Season
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By Lauren Coughlin

Before a major hurricane, reporters and consumers alike often have dire predictions as to how storms might affect the country’s energy infrastructure. Reports indicated that the 2017 storms could drastically raise gas prices or, worse, result in problems at the refinery that could harm workers or the environment. Fortunately, diligent preparation and serious infrastructure and preparedness improvements in the US refining sector, along with the work of regulators and emergency responders, have mitigated much of the disruptive potential of destructive weather events like Hurricane Harvey. Usually a story about a “lack of disaster” does not sell newspapers, so this topic did not get a lot of attention following the storms, but US refineries should be acknowledged for their response to natural disaster.

Massive storms, such as those of the 2005, 2008, and now 2017 hurricane seasons, can halt the production of energy from the upstream wellhead to the downstream marketers and retailers. Refineries are of concern because they represent large scale operations that often run at full capacity, so changes to their output can affect the entire energy market and take months for the economy to fully correct. The refineries shut down due to hurricanes Katrina and Rita accounted for almost a third of US refining capacity, taking weeks to get flooded refineries back online, and projections were made that Hurricane Harvey could be as—if not more—disruptive in 2017.

Twenty refineries were affected by Harvey, but the feared price, supply, and environmental disruptions never came to pass. Instead, America’s energy infrastructure allowed for shifting product flows, and refineries to quickly and safely restart. It took less than two weeks to get the majority of the affected plants back online and producing at normal operating rates. US refining capacity dipped in September but not significantly more than it does in most fall months. Finally, gasoline prices saw a short-term spike of less than 20 cents a gallon, but quickly dropped by mid-late September, as predicted by AAA’s Jeannette Casselano.

US refineries demonstrated their resiliency not only through the efficient resumption of their work, but by the effective safeguards implemented to prevent toxic releases during destructive weather. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality noted that in the time period surrounding Harvey, all measured air pollution concentrations were “well below levels of concern.” Though some monitoring was disrupted during the storm, by the end of September, the EPA reported that the Texas monitoring system was 100 percent functional and that the measured concentrations were “well below levels of concern.”

Refineries take multiple precautions before and after a storm like Harvey, and industry is constantly working to improve its resiliency and response capabilities for extreme weather. The American Petroleum Institute maintains a collection of hurricane-related resources that can provide refinery operators more detail on the specifics of conducting refinery shutdowns and restarts. Refineries are complex plants, and it takes more than a flip of a switch to safely shut them down and get them up and running again, and the restart process usually takes several days before everyone is back to work and the refinery is producing at normal levels. This delay might be inconvenient, but it ensures that companies are completing each step in their company’s safe restart process.

Refineries keep American business and households fueled-up and running, even when faced with the most daunting extreme weather. The 2017 hurricane season tested the refining industries’ preparedness and dedication to both safety and the country’s energy security. Regulators and refiners share the goal of maintaining availability and affordability of fuel while protecting workers and the environment during the shutdown and restart process, and they worked together before and after hurricane season towards productive ends. Cooperation in emergency response planning, as well as day-to-day safety and environmental protection, promotes a future with safe, abundant, and reliable energy for consumers.

Lauren Coughlin is a policy advisor at the American Petroleum Institute in the Downstream and Industry Operations group where she works on issues involving general refining policy, process safety, occupational safety, and fuels. She is a new WCEE member.


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