Rethinking Chemical Storage: A Wake-Up Call From Harvey
University of Houston Energy Fellows | Forbes
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.
Similarly, the gasoline tank leak by Magellan Midstream spilled nearly 11,000 barrels of gasoline, a fraction of which entered the Houston Ship Channel. During Katrina in 2005, more than 190,000 barrels of oil were spilled into the ground and waterways in what has been labeled the “worst onshore oil spill disaster” in the U.S.
Chemical storage and weather-related disasters are not restricted to the Gulf Coast. While hurricanes and flooding pose risks along the Gulf, facilities in the Midwest, for example, are vulnerable to earthquakes and tornadoes.
There is a clear and pressing need to address combinations of active and passive barriers to improve the safety of stored chemicals, from feedstock and intermediates to value-added products, including gasoline and jet fuel.
That must include both technological innovation and new ways of thinking about the petrochemical infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico, including reconfiguring supply chain systems, using modern chemical and digital methods, to lower the risk from natural disasters to both the environment and to people. Such technologies and operational changes will have clear implications for storage of chemicals near large urban regions along the east and west coasts, as well as in the Midwest.
Similar technological and digital improvements, along with the push to raise operational standards, have led to demonstrable improvements in both the safety and environmental records of the exploration, production and manufacturing sectors of the energy industry.
But as the Arkema explosions and less dramatic accidents during and in the aftermath of Harvey demonstrated, there is more work to do.
As a first step in this process, it is critical to develop a prioritized list of storage and supply chain challenges that require both active and passive barriers to mitigate vulnerable inventories of hazardous petrochemicals, lowering the risk of similar accidents in the future. Industry, along with state and federal regulators working with academic experts, need to develop this list based on a realistic determination of risk, including well-considered worst case scenarios.
Technological and business practice solutions to lower the risk faced by both storage and the supply chain can then be applied by focusing on several specific possibilities:
- Using innovations in digital data collection, data analytics and supply-chain optimization to lower the risk of storing hazardous petrochemicals.
- Using process synthesis and intensification and micro-process engineering tools to develop in-situ generation of high-toxicity and energetic chemicals to avoid storage of such specialized intermediate toxic chemicals.
- Developing storage solutions that include numbering-up through modularization instead of volumetric scale-up of storage units.
We must systematically develop and deploy technologies to ensure the integrity of the entire supply chain of petrochemical products, irrespective of geography and the specific threats faced. This will build the public’s confidence that the industry’s growth and continued operations are in the best interest of society.
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