Chevron refinery limps along without key unit 

On Tuesday, Chevron sought to repair the core of its Richmond refinery after an hourslong fire burned Monday night in the crude unit.

The blaze sent a pitch-black plume of smoke high above the East Bay, burning for more than four hours before being completely extinguished overnight, Chevron said.

As traders recalled that a 2007 fire on the same unit left the plant mostly idle for months, gasoline 
premiums began to spike.

Besides the damaged crude distillation unit, Chevron said other units were still running at the 245,000-barrel-per-day plant, which accounts for one-eighth of California’s refining capacity.

“We’re working to repair the affected equipment so that we can resume normal operations as soon as we can do so safely,” a Chevron official said in a statement.

With the CDU shut down, it was unclear how long secondary units — which rely on feed from the CDU to produce finished fuel such as gasoline — can keep running.

Trade sources who saw images of the 40-foot flames feared the closure could last up to three months, although other experts said it was too early to say.

On Monday night, 350 people went to the Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center with respiratory concerns, but the hospital made no admissions Tuesday. At Doctors Medical Center in nearby San Pablo, 181 people sought help Monday for respiratory problems and eye irritation, and more were arriving Tuesday.

Both cities grew up in the shadow of Chevron’s oldest refinery, and some wonder if the fire will sharpen debate between those who fear its environmental impact and others who say the declining industrial city needs the taxes and jobs.

“No one should have to live downwind of a dangerous oil refinery,” said Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s director for environmental justice and community partnerships.

Updating its announcement of one injury, Chevron said three employees sustained minor injuries and were treated on-site.

The Richmond Museum of History’s event to mark 110 years of the refinery, scheduled for Tuesday, had to be postponed.

West Coast giant

Chevron’s Richmond refinery is a 110-year-old West Coast stalwart that provided fuel through two world wars and has been overhauled repeatedly to keep pace with changing U.S. crude flows.

  • SAUDI RELIANCE: Saudi Arabia is by far the largest supplier of crude to the refinery, accounting for 175,000 barrels per day of the plant’s needs in the first four months of 2012 and 140,000 bpd in 2011, import data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show. The data do not provide any information on the plant’s use of domestic crude.
  •  HISTORY: When the plant was completed in July 1902, it had a capacity of 10,000 bpd, making it the largest on the West Coast. It processed crude from Southern California.
  • Output surged to 65,000 bpd in 1914. The plant was reinforced in 1917 with searchlights and machine guns while a torpedo boat patrolled nearby because the plant served as an important supplier of fuel during World War I.
  • In 1943, a $10 million toluene plant was installed to make the key ingredient for TNT as part of the World War II effort.
  • As new federal mandates were put into place to reduce lead in gasoline in the 1970s, new processing standard was installed in the plant.
  • New processing units to produce higher-quality products were installed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Capacity swelled to 225,000 bpd by 2006, making it the largest processor of crude oil in the Bay Area.


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