Ominous Signs at a Port Arthur Refinery


A version of this story ran in the August 2012 issue.

Erwin Seba, a reporter with the Reuters bureau in Houston, has exposed one of the most alarming ongoing stories in Texas. His 2,000-word saga, published in late June, began with this: “In the end, all it took was a small chemical spill—perhaps less than a barrelful—to bring down the newest, mightiest oil refinery in the United States.”

Seba traced how things have gone dangerously awry at the newly expanded $10 billion Motiva Enterprises Port Arthur refinery—the largest refinery in North America—resulting in the shutdown of some of its units. The plant is spread across thousands of low-lying acres in humid Port Arthur, on the site where the first oil refinery in Texas was built 111 years ago, and close to where oil was first unearthed in the state.

The refinery is a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco, owned by the Saudi Arabian government. A few weeks before Seba’s story appeared, steel-gray storm clouds gathered in Port Arthur as the Shell and Aramco executives arrived for the triumphant ceremonial opening of the new units. Assembled inside a huge tent, the oil executives gleefully turned an imitation valve, symbolically launching an operation that promised to produce 6 million gallons of gasoline daily.

Spokesmen for Motiva, headquartered in Houston, crowed to reporters that 14,000 people had found work building the new units and that the plant would add $17 billion to the Texas economy. “Our commitment to meet the needs of the United States’ oil market … will contribute to enhancing the United States’ long-term energy security—today, tomorrow, and for decades to come,” added Aramco CEO Khalid Al-Falih.

But within days of the opening ceremony, there were scary problems at the refinery, which have gone unexamined by the state media, with a handful of notable exceptions:

Two fires broke out in a new crude distillation unit, and then whole sections of the plant were shut down on June 9. More than a few oil experts feared another Texas City-style disaster was simmering. In 1947, the worst industrial disaster in American history occurred in Texas City when refineries blew up, killing more than 500 people and injuring 5,000. In 2005, 15 people were killed and 180 injured in an explosion at the British Petroleum plant in Texas City.

Given fears of another wide-scale tragedy, the historic scope of the project, and the regional and national implications of a plant shutdown, it’s staggering that so few media outlets have disclosed what is happening in Port Arthur.

The earliest reporting appeared in a few outlets: Bloomberg, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and The Beaumont Enterprise produced solid breaking news stories on the shutdown. Then Seba’s drilled-down piece, abetted by unnamed sources, emerged three weeks after the ceremonial opening. Seba reported that a chemical had leaked into a new 30-story crude distillation unit; as it heated up to nearly 700 degrees Fahrenheit inside the chamber, the chemical vaporized and began to corrode thousands of feet of stainless steel pipe.

Seba’s dispassionate report included a panoramic view of the history of oil in Texas and was informed by independent industry experts, who suggested that such problems at the plant should never have happened. “We have the worst-case scenario,” one of Seba’s anonymous sources told him.

Motiva, Aramco and Shell officials have been almost silent on the topic. Motiva’s home page still features the glowing PR account of the May 31 opening, and no mention of the subsequent problems.

Since Seba’s piece, James Shannon, who writes for the Beaumont Business Journal and Beaumont-based The Examiner, has pushed the story forward. One of Shannon’s anonymous sources said it was not “plausible” that corrosion caused the plant’s shutdown. “The combination of secrecy and speculation makes this a difficult story to cover, but reporting efforts will continue,” Shannon wrote.

That reporting will continue is good news. That so few media outlets have reported the problems at the Motiva plant is as ominous for Texas journalism as the storm clouds on the day of the refinery’s ceremonial opening.