* Motiva looking to rebuild much of new unit - sources
* New crude unit's shutdown still seen lasting up to a year
By Erwin Seba
HOUSTON, July 16 A month-long investigation of
the pitted and scarred crude unit at Motiva's massive Port
Arthur, Texas refinery has uncovered the "worst news" about its
condition, according to sources familiar with the probe, giving
operators no reason to shorten estimates of an up to year-long
With workers finally able to access most of the new 325,000
barrel per day (bpd) crude distillation unit (CDU) now that it
has cooled down, the company expects to rebuild much but perhaps
not all of the more than $300 million atmospheric section, the
heart of the unit, the sources said.
But nothing has given them reason to hope that repairs will
be any shorter than had been projected last month, when workers
were told the unit could be idle for as long as a year.
"We're just hearing the worst news on each part they look
at," said one of the sources.
The crude unit was knocked out of production on June 9, five
weeks after it began operating, by a rare occurrence of
accelerated chemical corrosion, experts say.
A chemical called caustic, meant to keep crude oil from
clogging the unit, turned into a destructive vapor as the CDU
was being restarting following a brief stoppage for unrelated
Now Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco,
which own Motiva, are rushing to repair a potentially
billion-dollar glitch that has added an embarrassing and costly
coda to a landmark five-year, $10 billion expansion that made
the plant the biggest in the country at a total 600,000-bpd
Asked about the progress, Motiva spokeswoman Kayla Macke
reiterated on Friday that the company expects "the outage of the
new crude unit may continue for several months while the causes
of the issue are established and rectified."
She added, "Asset integrity and reliability are high
priorities for the refinery and Motiva will resume normal
operations as soon as it is appropriate to do so."
Sources confirmed that damage had been confined to the
atmospheric section of the crude unit, which is responsible for
the initial stage of refining crude. The feedstock it produces
either goes to other units to make motor fuels or to the vacuum
section of the crude unit for further refining.
"They're looking to rebuild many parts, but not all of the
atmospheric section," one of the sources said.
An older 285,000-bpd crude distillation unit continued to
operate at the refinery.
As it prepares the repair project, Motiva is contacting
subcontractors from the expansion to carry them out, the sources
"They know those units best," one source said.
In addition to assessing damage, the company is trying to
determine how small amounts of caustic leaked into the crude
unit in the first place.
The material leaked in through a valve or valves that were
not completely blocked off while the crude unit was out of
production to fix a vapor leak, which was thought to a minor
repair. The repair ultimately took a week, however.
Normally, a minor fix on a unit does not require the valves
be blocked off, the sources said.
Getting the crude unit back into production is expected to
cost between $300 million and $400 million, about the cost of
its initial construction, according to industry analysts.