It’s hard to keep the cat in the bag when you’ve got a few hundred people pulling its tail.
Consider what goes on behind the fence at a refinery. Sure, there’s always flaring, and steam being released, and hard-hatted workers rushing to and fro.
But what’s really up? The companies would rather the public didn’t know the nitty-gritty, mainly for the cause of staying competitive in a business where regulation and a general downdraft in gasoline prices always put considerable pressure on the bottom line.
Last week, a man named Cole Brennan got fairly excited on being called in to work a “shutdown” at the 55,000 b/d Chevron refinery in Burnaby, British Columbia. Obscenities have been obscured in the screenshot.
It was worth further investigation. Brennan had a Facebook page where he listed his telephone number. A Platts reporter exchanged texts with him.
So Brennan, who lists occupations on Facebook as a former boilermaker and blacksmith, didn’t reveal what was going on at Burnaby. It might be a turnaround or it might not. Chevron isn’t saying, beyond this quote from spokesman Braden Reddall:
“We cannot comment on matters that are commmercially sensitive.”
Brennan is hardly the first and won’t be the last to discuss a refinery project in public. Just this week on Twitter, a woman whose posts suggest a California address was talking about a turnaround at Tesoro. Monitoring refinery tweets using Tweetdeck during the past few months from Saudi Arabia to Wales to northern California revealed that many of them fall into two categories: “I’m excited about going back to work” or “I’m going to miss something important because I’m going to be at the refinery.”
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The status of a fluid catalytic cracker or crude distillation unit is a trade secret that a major refiner clamps down on like a lid on a pressure cooker. Just in the past three weeks, Phillips 66 and Philadelphia Energy Solutions held back on specifics about major unit upsets linked to cold weather at refineries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, respectively.
“I think nobody wants people to know exactly what they are going to be short of in the market,” said Carl Larry, president of Oil Outlooks in Houston. “If they close down a unit and all of the sudden I’m out in the market trying to buy blendstock, everyone knows what I’m looking for.”
Welcome to the show, indeed. But no spoilers, please.