Weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit southeast Texas, ExxonMobil’s Beaumont and Baytown refineries are now fully operational. Combined, the two facilities have the capacity to refine more than 920,000 barrels of crude oil a day, which roughly translates to 28.5 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel.

The process of turning crude oil into clean fuels requires different units working together. So it’s not surprising that restarting refineries as big as those in Beaumont and Baytown takes time. You just don’t flip a switch and have finished gasoline. A typical shutdown at a refinery involves one or two units, but a total shutdown of a refinery the size of Baytown or Beaumont can involve 40 or more units and is extremely rare.

Even though rare, refineries have comprehensive shutdown and start-up plans that address a variety of scenarios, including hurricanes. The process is carefully planned, and the goal is to get back online safely—not just quickly.

Getting utilities up and running

The cogeneration plant in Beaumont generates 500 megawatts of electricity, which not only powers refining operations, but also supplements the local grid.

A restart can’t happen without basic utilities, including heat, electricity, water and even the nitrogen and hydrogen that refineries use to process crude.

Coordinating with suppliers and checking the state of in-house utilities, such as the cogeneration units that produce heat and electricity, is the first step of any restart.

Logistics check

Crude tankers docked at the Baytown marine terminal. 

Crude oil and other feedstocks arrive at the Beaumont and Baytown refineries via pipelines and vessels. The large receiving tanks have to be operational, and there has to be enough crude oil to process for the foreseeable future. Further, plans have to be worked out to deliver the refined products to customers efficiently.

Pipelines and pumps

Equipment being checked at one of ExxonMobil’s Baytown-area petrochemical plants.

Harvey’s intense rains flooded a number of critical pumps and pipeline facilities in and around Beaumont and Baytown. These have to be carefully inspected—and, in some cases, repaired, which can take some time.

Restarting distillation, cracking and coker units

The distillation tower at the Baytown refinery.

Distillation, cracking, hydrofining, reforming and coking units are collectively the beating heart of any refinery. Simply put, these towers separate, convert and purify raw crude oil into gasoline and other commercial products.

A restart of dozens and dozens of units is done in series – not parallel – and is a gradual process. Each unit needs to be cleared and inspected, and only then can we begin the process of safely increasing temperatures and pressures to meet the requirements for turning crude oil into finished products.


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