For San Francisco Bay Area residents and West Coast oil traders, the Monday evening fire that struck California’s second-largest oil refinery was a flashback to a blaze five years earlier with remarkable similarities.
Both began with a leak at the plant’s crude unit, the heart of the refining process; both blazed for hours before being brought under control. Only one worker sustained minor injuries in both events, while residents were ordered indoors for hours. And just like on Jan. 15, 2007, toll collectors at a nearby bridge fled their stations as dark plumes billowed.
The question now facing oil traders is whether the fallout too will be similar. In January 2007, operator Chevron Corp. had been shutting down the refinery for a six-week overhaul when the fire erupted; it remained shut for nearly twice that time in order to complete repairs.
While the two events are the largest fires to hit the area’s four refineries in recent years, the 110-year-old Richmond plant, one of the country’s oldest, has actually suffered fewer major incidents than others, data show, underscoring the inherently volatile nature of using heat and high pressure to process volatile oil into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
The incident comes just three years after Contra Costa County, the north Bay Area community that is home to four refineries including Chevron’s, celebrated the first year without a major chemical accident or release since implementing a so-called Industrial Safety Ordinance program in 1999.
Chevron’s plant operates under a similar scheme that applies to City of Richmond facilities, according to the documents, while refineries operated by Royal Dutch Shell, Tesoro Inc. and ConocoPhillips are principally covered by the county. Together they can process 700,000 bpd of crude, just over a third of California’s total capacity.
Chevron’s refinery has had just four major incidents over the past 16 years, with no fatalities, according to records from the Contra Costa Health Services. That’s the least of any of the four plants, according to a review of the filings.
The Golden Eagle Refinery, now owned by Tesoro Inc., has had the most, with 19 major accidents since 1996, including two fatal fires in the 1990s when owned by Tosco.
MEMORIES OF 2007
On Monday evening, a fire broke out in the No. 4 crude distillation unit (CDU) after a small leak was discovered, the company has said. Workers had been evacuated as the leak expanded, one treated for a slight burn on the wrist while hundreds of residents fled to local hospitals for checkups.
Very early on January 15, 2007, the same crude unit was engulfed in flames after the failure of a pump seal on a line ignited diesel fuel that was being used to clean the unit, which had been shut earlier for maintenance.
Both the refinery fire department and the Richmond Fire Department battled the blaze for almost 12 hours until it went out, according to the incident report filed by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District at the time. On Monday, the fire was under control in about five hours.
As a smoke plume rose over the San Francisco Bay, authorities issued a “shelter in place” warning, which was in place for just over three hours; on Monday, the same warning lasted for about five hours.
One important difference is that in 2007, the fire broke out just as the company was shutting down the plant for a major six-week overhaul during the seasonal late-winter lull in gasoline demand. That work was then rolled into repairs, keeping the refinery closed until March 30. The gasoline-making fluid catalytic cracker did not returning to service until mid-April.
This week’s fire struck as West Coast refineries are running at more than 90 percent of capacity to meet peak summer demand. Based on preliminary July data, PADD-5 refineries were running at their highest monthly rate since 2008.
Experts caution that it’s difficult to judge the amount of damage by the size of the conflagration.
“There is a lot of volatile material there and so looks can be deceptive. But it depends on the extent of the damage to key pieces of equipment,” said John Auers, a refinery specialist with Houston-based consultants Turner Mason.
“If there is no major damage to the units, it could be a matter of days before it returns. It is a wait and see type situation,” he added.
Go back further, to March 26, 1999, and an even more spectacular blast struck the refinery, forcing its evacuation. In that incident in the hydrocracker unit, which makes gasoline and diesel from fuel oil, was shut for almost a year, restarting in February 2000.