Some US chem plants could take weeks to restart after winter storm

Al Greenwood


HOUSTON (ICIS)–Chemical plants on the US Gulf Coast could begin to restart within days or weeks, depending on whether they have access to feedstock and utilities and whether they avoided an unexpected cold shutdown, which cokes furnaces and chunks reactors.

Much will depend on whether companies were able to shut down their operations in a controlled and precautionary way, said Brian Pruett, senior vice president of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) with CDI, now part of ICIS.

Even then, because such deep freezes are so unusual on the US Gulf Coast, companies may have overlooked some steps, Pruett said. That could complicate restart operations.

Nonetheless, while some plants could take a while to restart, others are coming back online.

CITGO is preparing to restart the east and west plants of its refinery in Corpus Christi, in south Texas, it told state regulators on Monday. Pollution associated with the restart could continue until 4 March.

CITGO had shut down the plant on 15 February because of cold weather, according to sources.

For the most part, a large majority of plants decided to take a controlled, precautionary shutdown, Pruett said. He estimates that 65-75% could restart relatively quickly.

Restarting a plant from a controlled shutdown usually does not take a lot of time, said James Wilson, senior analyst at ICIS.

Pruett said if utilities and feedstock are available, some crackers and polyethylene (PE) plants could begin restart operations within a few days. Refineries could take a couple of days to a week longer because of their size and complexity.

However, Pruett warned that many factors could complicate and prolong restart operations.

The Gulf Coast rarely experiences such cold temperatures, so plant operators do not have experience in dealing with deep freezes.

Plant operators may have failed to properly purge the water in a pump, Pruett said. That pump could suffer damage from the freeze. If there are no parts and no spares immediately available, then the plant will not restart right away. Plants have been known to fly in spare parts from overseas, which will delay restarts.

Wilson added that restarting a plant from a cold shutdown will take longer. Lines need to be properly purged. Pipes could have been damaged if they froze with any liquid inside of them.

Marathon Petroleum told state regulators that it found cracked pipes from the recent freeze at its Galveston Bay refinery in Texas.

For plants that suffered damage, Pruett said it is too early to tell how long they could stay offline. Some companies may decide to start maintenance projects that were planned later in the year. That could further prolong the outages caused by the winter storm.

If the plants escaped damage, they could still take more time to restart because of utility or feedstock shortages, Pruett said.

Some companies have already reported this. Last week, Valero told state regulators that its nitrogen and hydrogen suppliers had lost much of their production capacities.

Some plant restarts will require inspections, which could be delayed because of the coronavirus. Some inspectors may need to take time to attend to their damaged homes.

Additional reporting by Alex Snodgrass

Thumbnail image shows ice and snow. Photo by David J Phillip/AP/Shutterstock

Focus article by Al Greenwood


Global News + ICIS Chemical Business (ICB)

See the full picture, with unlimited access to ICIS chemicals news across all markets and regions, plus ICB, the industry-leading magazine for the chemicals industry.

Contact us

Partnering with ICIS unlocks a vision of a future you can trust and achieve. We leverage our unrivalled network of industry experts to deliver a comprehensive market view based on independent and reliable data, insight and analytics.

Contact us to learn how we can support you as you transact today and plan for tomorrow.