Processing Magazine

Energy Dept. to Monitor Refinery Outages

February 7, 2008
According to the Associated Press, the federal Energy Department has agreed to monitor oil refinery outages, a move Sen. Byron Dorgan believes could help prevent simultaneous plant shutdowns leading to high fuel prices and tight supplies.

Dorgan, D-N.D, and energy officials said that last year as many as eight nationwide refinery outages -- most of which were planned for repairs or maintenance -- contributed to fuel shortages in North Dakota and elsewhere.

Last November, Dorgan held a Senate committee meeting in Bismarck to investigate fuel shortages that he said forced North Dakota motorists to pay among highest prices in the nation for gasoline over the summer.

Dorgan asked the Energy Department to develop a system to monitor the shutdowns and watch for a potential disruption of supplies. Antitrust laws forbid companies to share information on planned refinery shutdowns with each other.

Howard Gruenspecht, deputy administrator of the Energy Department''s Energy Information Administration, said Wednesday that information on refinery outages will be gathered from commercially available sources. He said the agency also may look into gathering its own data.

Although the reporting by companies is not mandatory, Dorgan said, "I think the refineries would be ill-advised if they do not provide information about unplanned or planned outages."

Gruenspecht said he foresees no problems in getting information from companies about refinery outages or possibly having maintenance shutdowns changed so they occur at different times.

North Dakota has only one oil refinery, the Tesoro Corp. plant near Mandan. Spokesman Leif Peterson said shutdowns for maintenance at the facility usually are planned years in advance.

The industry learns quickly about unplanned outages stemming from accidents or other problems, Peterson said.

Companies sometimes have an idea when another refinery is planning a shutdown, based on the availability of contract workers who do maintenance work, Peterson said.

Mike Rud, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Marketers Association, said fuel shortages last year in North Dakota were dire.

In a letter to Dorgan, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said he believes the monitoring plan will help North Dakota and other states.

Dorgan called the move "a real healthy dose of common sense."