US methanol output hikes on Texan plant start-up; Rising chemical rail traffic counters general drop in carloads

Petrochemicals news you need to know.

US methanol production capacity grows to 4.8 mtpa

Fairway Methanol, a 50:50 joint venture between Celanese and Mitsui, has begun methanol production at a brand-new plant in Clear Lake, Texas.

With an annual production capacity of 1.3 million tonnes (mtpa), the plant ranks as the biggest US methanol production facility.

The start-up of the Celanese/Mitsui unit marks the second launch of a US methanol plant in 2015, following the January start-up of Methanex's 1 mtpa Geismar I facility in Geismar, Louisiana. Methanex may also launch the 1 mtpa Geismar II unit before the end of the year, the company has said.

With the addition of the Celanese/Mitsui plant, US methanol production stands at about 4.8 mtpa, according to Platts.

Meanwhile, federal and state regulators are weighing the first major permits requested for Northwest Innovation Works’ (NWIW) proposed $1.8 billion methanol manufacturing plant at the Port of Kalama, Washington, which the company plans to start constructing in Q4 2016, Associated Press reported.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering a clean water permit for the facility while the state Department of Ecology will decide whether to allow the company to build a natural gas pipeline to the plant.

NWIW is planning a total of eight methanol lines at three locations in Washington and Oregon to produce methanol for export to Asia.

Refinery turnarounds for Marathon, Phillips 66, ExxonMobil and FlintHills

Marathon Petroleum will shut the fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) unit at its 88,500-b/d Texas City, Texas, refinery for unplanned maintenance in late October, Oil Price Information Service (OPIS) reported on Oct. 15. Work on the 58,500-b/d unit is expected to last 40-45 days.

Marathon also just completed a planned turnaround at its 225,000-b/d refinery in Robinson, Illinois, according to OPIS.

Meanwhile, Phillips 66 is planning an upgrade of the FCC unit at its 66 251,000-b/d Bayway refinery in Linden, New Jersey, the company said on Oct. 12. The company has allotted around $400 million in discretionary spending for modernization of the FCC at Bayway, as well as for an upgrade of the vacuum tower at its Billings, Montana, refinery along with other projects to improve product yields and cut feedstock costs.

An FCC unit at ExxonMobil’s 344,500-b/d refinery in Beaumont, Texas, may be taken down for maintenance in mid-October, market sources told OPIS on Sept. 30. ExxonMobil might also bring forward planned work at Beaumont that was originally scheduled for the first quarter of 2016. This work is set to last 30 days and will involve a crude unit and a hydrocracker, according to media reports.

FlintHills’ 304,000-b/d refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, will also undergo about 45 days of planned maintenance on an FCC starting in mid-October, according to OPIS.

US chemical rail traffic outpaces 2014 levels

US chemical carloads in the first 40 weeks of 2015 have outpaced 2014 volumes by 0.4% despite a 1.2% decline in total US rail traffic year on year, according to new data by the Association of American Railroads released on Oct. 14.

US chemicals totalled 1,214,355 carloads through the first 40 weeks of this year out of a total combined rail traffic of 21,854,186 carloads and intermodal units.

The decline in total US rail traffic came as metallic ores and metals carloads fell 9.9% on the year, coal carloads dropped 9.3%, petroleum and petroleum products dropped 6.5%, and forest products and non-metallic minerals each fell 2.3%.

Trends in US rail traffic as of week 40 – 2014 vs. 2015. The data excludes the US operations of CN and Canadian Pacific. Source: AAR

Total and Saudi Aramco ponder Al Jubail ethylene complex

Total and Saudi Aramco are considering expanding their Saudi Aramco Total Refining & Petrochemical (SATORP) joint venture at Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia, with a new ethylene complex that will produce linear alpha olefins, poly alpha olefins and elastomers, according to the Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association.

The companies are working to secure gas allocations before launching the front-end engineering design study for the project, said Jean-Jacques Mosconi, Total’s senior vice president, refining and petrochemicals for Mideast and Asia.

SATORP operates a 400,000-bbl/day export refinery and aromatics complex. The aromatics complex is designed to produce 700,000 metric tonnes/year of para-xylene and 140,000 metric tonnes/year of benzene.

The refinery also produces 200,000 metric tonnes of polymer-grade propylene annually, part of which is supplied to Advanced Petrochemical Co. to produce polypropylene.

CSB reports on DuPont’s La Porte incident

An ongoing investigation by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) of the November 2014 toxic chemical leak that killed four workers at DuPont's insecticide plant in La Porte, Texas, has uncovered flawed safety procedures, design problems and inadequate planning at the facility, according to the agency’s draft report released on Sept. 30.

Among the interim findings, the building where the fatalities occurred was not equipped with an adequate toxic gas detection system to alert workers about the presence of dangerous chemicals, the CSB said.

The agency also noted that DuPont’s process hazard analyses (PHAs) and relief system design scenarios do not effectively identify hazards from non-routine operations, such as opening valves to connect the liquid methyl mercaptan piping to the vapor waste gas vent header – the piping connection that provided the pathway for the methyl mercaptan released in the incident.

The draft report, which was unanimously approved by the CSB board in early October, recommends that the company performs an inherently safer design review, ensures the manufacturing building is safe for workers, provides relief system design that is safe for workers and the public, completes more robust process hazard analyses, assures active workforce participation, and promises public accountability and transparency.

The CSB has also released an animation showing how the fatal accident occurred.

Source: CSB

DuPont has agreed to address the proposed CSB recommendations as part of a plan to safely restart the facility.