The aftermath of the PES refinery fire


The fire that engulfed a Philadelphia refinery on June 21 caused such extensive damage the owner decided to permanently close the financially-struggling facility.

It isn’t unusual for refineries to experience natural & man-made disasters. When these events strike, people are eager for information on the extent of destruction which can sometimes be difficult to obtain.

One solution involves satellite imagery of the site. At Ursa, we have a team of analysts with the ability to interpret satellite imagery and inform clients about the situation on-the-ground.

An example from earlier this year was the Deer Park, Texas refinery disaster, in which we used both electro-optical (EO) and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery.

The more recent incident at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery provides another use case.

Below is an overview of the refinery complex, which had the capacity to process 335,000 barrels per day (bpd), making it the largest refinery on the East Coast. It was also the oldest.


Satellite imagery: Planet Labs (June 23, 2019)
Illustration Credit: Ursa

The PES Refinery was comprised of two adjacent facilities: Point Breeze and Girard Point.

A June 10 fire broke out at the Point Breeze section. Eleven days later, in the Girard Point section, a butane vat connected to a 30,000 bpd alkylation unit ignited causing a series of explosions.

Here’s a look at the alkylation unit before the fire.


Satellite Imagery: Google Earth (July 2, 2017)

We also examined satellite imagery from after the fire to provide an assessment of the damage.

We concluded the fire destroyed the alkylation unit, including the eastern half of the train, the reactors and settlers, and damaged adjacent pipelines.

In addition, the fractionation tower remained in tact, but pipeline infrastructure connecting unit components was gone.


Satellite Imagery: Planet Labs (June 23, 2019)
Illustration Credit: Ursa

The alkylation unit produces alkylate, a premium gasoline feedstock.

Even without the fire, the refinery would likely have closed because of the challenging economics, according to Amy Kalt, a consultant at Baker & O’Brien.

The same conditions apply up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, which explains why the Northeast has seen other refiners shut down, she says.

A lack of pipeline access to domestic crude, higher operating costs and competition for market share from Gulf Coast refiners are some of the reasons why East Coast refiners have struggled, Kalt says.

News of the PES refinery explosions and shutdown decision pushed gasoline futures higher. By June 26, NYMEX RBOB was 10% higher than just six days earlier.

We’ll continue to monitor key events impacting that oil supply chain.

You can also check out the refineries and pipelines under construction that we monitor on a regular basis or request on-demand intel.




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