Many Houston energy facilities shut down before Hurricane Laura

Houston’s energy facilities — from ports to power plants to the nation’s largest refinery — on Tuesday prepared for Hurricane Laura, which could bring dangerous storm surges and powerful winds to the area this week.

As the hurricane intensified and moved toward the Texas-Louisiana border, the nation’s largest refinery and others along the coast were being shut down, the Port of Houston planned to suspend all public terminal operations Tuesday evening, and chemical and power plants also prepared for the storms effects.

Laura is expected to come ashore as a Category 3 hurricane near Lake Charles, La., on Wednesday night or Thursday morning. On Tuesday afternoon, the storm was about 500 miles southeast of Galveston with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph.

Plants halt operations

Gulf Coast refineries, which process about half of the nation’s fuel and natural gas, and chemical plants are particularly susceptible to hurricanes’ devastating effects. When refineries and chemical facilities must shut down and restart, the plants release air pollutants. However, if plants wait too long to cease operations during a storm, other problems, such as power outages, can cause even more risks to public and environmental health.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 51 inches of rain in the Houston area, flooding the city’s petrochemical corridor and releasing dozens of known carcinogens, including benzene, vinyl chloride and butadiene, into local neighborhoods. In one case, an Arkema chemical plant in Crosby exploded after the plant’s backup generators flooded and lost power, releasing hazardous gases from organic peroxides into the surrounding area.

Several Houston-area refineries and chemical companies detailed plans Tuesday to partially or completely shut down operations ahead of Hurricane Laura.

Motiva Enterprises is temporarily shutting down its Port Arthur refinery, the nation’s largest. The Houston independent refiner on Tuesday said it will halt operations at its refinery and petrochemical plant in Port Arthur to protect its personnel and facilities from the hurricane.

Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. began to shut down its Pasadena plastics plant Tuesday, according to an environmental notice filed with the state. The company told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that it expects the plant, located along Buffalo Bayou, to be closed through Thursday.

Emissions related to the shutdown could include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and isobutane, the company warned, adding that it would follow procedures to minimize flaring.

“We have established protocols for responsibly and safely securing and shutting down facilities when the situation warrants,” public affairs manager Bryce Hallowell said in a statement. “These plans are designed to minimize environmental concerns.”

LyondellBasell, a Netherlands-based plastics, chemicals and refining company, said it would halt some operations in southeast Texas. The company’s polymers business in Bayport began to shut down Tuesday. The company also was shutting down its Lake Charles polypropylene operations, leaving a small crew on site for the duration of the storm to ensure the safety of the plant. Its plant in Alvin was closing, the company said, because a plant with which it shares a site is closing. The plant shares a site with the INEOS complex about 45 miles south of Houston makes olefins and polypropylene. INEOS declined to comment on the shutdown.

San Antonio-based refiner Valero is shutting down its Port Arthur refinery. The company’s other Gulf Coast facilities in Texas are securing equipment and ensuring that adequate supplies are available.

“We are monitoring the storm’s path and will make other refinery operation decisions as appropriate,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas said. “The health and safety of our employees, their families, and surrounding community is our top priority as we prepare for Hurricane Laura.”

Houston petrochemical and polymer company Westlake Chemical has activated its hurricane plans and had begun to shut down some units of its Lake Charles, La., facility, spokesman Chip Swearngan said.

Total, the Paris-based oil major, had also reduced operations in Port Arthur, according to data compiled by S&P Global.

Keeping power on

Power companies also prepared facilities for the effects of Hurricane Laura. NRG, one of the biggest generators of electricity in Texas, had employees walk around its plants and secure anything that could become a flying object in high winds. The company also is reviewing staffing plans in anticipation of flooding that could limit access to it plants.

NRG’s plans for workers also include sleeping arrangements and meal breaks that will be more complicated because of social distancing requirements amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The primary concern right now is getting the plants cleaned up and latched down, and ensuring NRG has enough supplies to last several days, according to spokeswoman Pat Hammond. Once the company knows more about the strength of the hurricane, it will determine if plant evacuations could be necessary.

Securing ports

Along area waterways, the Coast Guard ordered large vessels in ports at Houston, Galveston, Freeport and Texas City to be ready to depart or be safely secured during the storm. Smaller vessels will have to be sheltered outside of deep-draft shipping channels. Further restrictions on ship movement could be implemented if the hurricane brings winds greater than about 40 mph.

The Port of Houston, after suspending terminal operations Tuesday evening, said it may keep its eight public facilities closed through Thursday. Barbours Cut and the Bayport Container terminals in the Port of Houston closed Tuesday evening. The gates at Cargo Bay Road and Ramp Road Six will likely remain open Wednesday and Thursday.

There are more than 200 private facilities in the Port of Houston and each is responsible for its own emergency response plan, spokeswoman Lisa Ashley said.

“Port Houston has a trained Emergency Management team and we are monitoring weather conditions and are making preparations,” Ashley said.