By Ramanan Krishnamoorti, Chief Energy Officer at the University of Houston
Hurricane Harvey, and especially the flooding along the Gulf Coast that accompanied the storm, offered a litmus test for the safety of the nation’s petrochemical and refining industry. With a few notable exceptions, the plants passed.
Investments in plant and equipment safety appear to be paying off. Storage, transportation and other supply chain issues need similar attention. The substantial economic and environmental impact Harvey imposed on the industry is a stark illustration of that.
The Federal Reserve Bank has noted that the hurricane and flooding affected about 30% of refining and petrochemical production in the U.S. That followed similar disruptions to petrochemical production from recent hurricanes and weather events, including hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Ike (2008).
During Harvey, production facilities, including refineries and chemical plants, and the raw material supply chain – from tankers at ports, offshore and onshore production wells – were systematically shut down and process safety barriers implemented. No significant production mishaps were reported.
Impressively, no significant safety-related issues were reported when many of these systems came back online, either.
The soft underbelly of the chemical and petrochemical industry along the Gulf Coast turned out to be the storage of raw materials, intermediates and refined products, not the process of refining or chemical manufacturing or their startup or shutdown processes.
Petrochemical storage facilities continue to be vulnerable during natural disasters , risking releases which can damage the environment and impact public safety.
The most recent example happened when Harvey-related flooding swamped the Arkema Inc. facility in Crosby, Texas, about 30 miles from downtown Houston. That triggered the ignition of highly energetic organic peroxides when the plant’s emergency power system failed to maintain the refrigeration required to keep the chemicals stable.