Shuts & Turns: The Rewards Of Success And The Price Of Failure

Texas City has shown us that the most dangerous period for an oil or gas refinery is not in the day to day running but during start-up and shutdown. In this article, we look at how to reap the rewards of a successful TAR

Prevention is better than the cure

When dealing with oil and gas, safety and effective risk management is crucially important, as any errors can have huge repercussions not only for the environment, but also to the company involved.

Accidents, spills and leaks can be incredibly costly to deal with, while an organisation's reputation can receive untold damage as consumers lose faith in it.

However, the most dangerous period for an oil or gas refinery is not in day to day running but during start-up and shutdown, where thousands of procedures need to come together in the right order to prevent disaster.

As a result of this, monitoring and reporting are integral to the safe operation of turnarounds and provide organisations with the data they need to assess the performance of current projects and learn lessons that can be used to improve the safety of future projects.

Shutdowns and turnarounds are planned months, or even years, in advance but are vital to maintain the safe running of refineries. They provide the opportunity for those in the industry to ensure everything is working correctly, clean out systems to keep them running, as well as repair, replace or upgrade any necessary parts.

This halt in production and the intensity of work, combined with the need for experts to be involved in turnarounds means they can be very costly. However, the inconvenience caused by successful turnarounds is nothing on what can happen when they go wrong.

When it all goes awry: the Texas City oil refinery disaster

After a lengthy investigation, one of the most infamous oil refinery disasters in history was found to have been prompted by human error and oversight as work wrapped up on a nine-week turnaround.

An explosion at BP's Texas City oil refinery in 2005 killed 15 oil workers and injured at least 170 others. It is widely thought to have been the worst workplace accident in the US for decades and resulted in BP facing criminal charges for breaching environmental laws, as well as a number of lawsuits from victims' families.

However, it then received further fines from The Occupational Safety and Health Administration for failing to implement safety improvements following the investigation.


BP has since admitted responsibility for the blast, which was caused by a series of failures that led to the start-up of a raffinate splitter tower before the timely discharge of hydrocarbons had been started, creating a domino effect which sent a surge of hot flammable vapours and liquids up the vent stack. A spark from an engine being started in the car park provided the source of ignition for the massive explosion that followed.

"The mistakes made during the start-up of this unit were surprising and deeply disturbing. The result was an extraordinary tragedy we didn't foresee," said Ross Pillari, president of BP Products North America, following an announcement that a number of staff had been sacked for their part in the disaster.

However, an investigation by 60 Minutes in 2009 found evidence to suggest that several reports had been made to highlight the likelihood of an accident at the refinery. But according to the source, BP's top refinery executive John Manzoni claimed had he known the risk was so grave he would have done more to prevent "catastrophic failure".

Successful turnarounds

Nevertheless, disasters such as the one at the BP plant are very rare due to the huge amount of effort, resources and technologies in place to ensure everything goes smoothly.

All refineries must undertake shutdowns and turnarounds at some stage to remain operational and by looking into previous case-studies and regularly reviewing working practice they can find the tools to make sure the risks are limited.

PetroKazakhstan recently published reports about the successful completion of turnaround shutdown at its Shymkent Oil Refinery.

The shutdown was planned so that the firm could undertake vital maintenance work in a 30-day turnaround. The plant processes around 4.4 million tonnes of crude oil per year, which is then used for petrol, diesel, liquefied gas and jet fuel.

"All repair work and investment projects are aimed to improve the refinery performance and to enhance the reliability of its equipment with the view of ensuring further top-quality and continuous operation of the refinery," PetroKazakhstan said in a statement on its web site. Work was completed and the plant brought back into operation last month.