Why Is a 99-Year-Old Oil Refinery Still Running?

On the morning of March 5, the Houston Ship Channel briefly shut down because of a roaring fire at a Pasadena refinery that injured one worker. 

The fact that the tangle of refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast belch toxic chemicals, occasionally burst into flames and injure and sometimes kill workers isn't exactly shocking, as we've noted before, but what caught our attention about the latest incident is the sheer age of Pasadena Refining Systems.

Pasadena Refining Systems is a 99-year-old refinery with a lot of issues — 11 people were injured there in the past year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has issued more than $1 million in fines since 2011 and the refinery has been operating without a federal permit since 2014, for instance — but the age of the place isn't that unusual or necessarily the cause of its problems.

Refineries started popping up along the Texas Coast shortly after Spindletop was discovered in 1901 near Beaumont. More finds rapidly established Texas Gulf Coast oil fields including Sour Lake in 1902, Humble in 1905 and Goose Creek in 1908. With all the oil coming out of the coastal plains, it just made sense to build pipelines and refineries nearby in places like Houston and Pasadena. The Houston Ship Channel opened in 1914, and throughout the 1920s, oil refineries sprang up along the coast. 

From there, the Texas oil industry went through the ups and downs and booms and busts that we've now come to accept as a part of the oil business, but refineries and petrochemical plants continued to be built in the area until the country lurched into the 1970s.

The decade brought an oil boom to Texas. But it also introduced environmental regulations that made it more difficult and much more expensive to build a refinery on new land, versus remodeling the old ones already constructed on land that was already technically deemed toxic (because of all the refining), according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Until last year, there hadn't been a single new refinery built in the United States since 1976. Instead, refineries like the Pasadena Refining System have been repeatedly gutted, reworked, updated and expanded over the decades to handle the oil that comes down the complicated network of pipelines to be refined at these plants. Even though the actual number of oil refineries has declined, falling from 253 in 1982 to 137 active refineries today, the amount of oil these facilities are able to handle has actually grown in recent years, according to the Energy Information Administration. (Two new refineries were built in 2015, according to EIA.)

However,  even with all the facelifts over the years, the reality of what it takes to work with these ancient systems is another matter. You have to know the systems intimately, to the point you can simply listen to them and understand if they are running properly or not. A Shell refinery worker told us that what is shown on the refinery plans for the place won't actually match up with the way things are laid out in the refinery because of the repeated updates and alterations made over the years, as we noted in last year's cover story on the United Steelworkers strike at Shell, "Crossing the Line."  

Pasadena Refining System isn't the only refinery with a long history that has ended up having issues. Despite the 1990 Clean Air Act, which forced oil refinery companies to really step up and overhaul all their refineries all at once, it's hard to ignore age when talking about the accidents and deaths that occur within the metal works of these structures.

The Valero Refinery in Texas City was built in 1908, and there have been three deaths there in the past decade. One worker died in a blast, and several were injured in an explosion that started when they were trying to get a boiler back online in 2009; another worker was killed in a 2011 explosion at the plant.  The Lyondell Houston Refinery dates back to 1918. It was constructed by Sinclair, one of the early Texas oil giants, and like almost every other plant in Texas, it has changed hands steadily over the years. In 2010, a fire erupted at the plant and the flames could be seen for miles, KTRK then reported. 

And then there's the tragedy that is the Texas City refinery. The Texas City refinery formerly owned by British Petroleum (which sold it to Marathon in 2013) became infamous after 15 workers were killed in an explosion there in 2005. As investigators worked to understand what had gone wrong, the plant's age — it was built in 1934 — attracted attention and had many people questioning the wisdom of allowing a chemical plant or refinery of that age to keep running, as the Christian Science Monitor reported at the time. 

The age of the Pasadena Refining System isn't out of the ordinary, but we have to wonder if it should be. In the end, working in refineries is a dangerous job, as we've reported before, and most workers are very aware that even with the safety protocols of today, there's still a chance everything could go wrong. The question is, would the entire industry be at least a little bit safer if, well, the refineries themselves weren't so old?
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray