Oil Refining 101 at Shell-Motiva

July is one of the more rainy months in New Orleans—or so I am told, as I am a recent resident—but despite the rain, our tour went on.  Upstream, midstream, downstream these words were quickly adopted into my lexicon and the lexicons of my classmates.  But a few days into the program and off we went on our first site visit.  Our first tour would be of a downstream oil refinery co-owned and operated by Shell and Saudi Aramco called Motiva and located in Norco, LA—so named for originally being the New Orleans Refinery Company.

There we were greeted by several Shell-Motiva employees who explained the basics of how a refinery operates.  The first step of the process, boiling the crude oil to separate the lighter components from the heavier ones is relativity straight forward process to understand, and then the conversation turned to more advanced refining techniques.  I found my chemistry skills to be quite rusty, as we discussed ways to maximize withdrawing higher value hydrocarbons—such as gasoline and diesel.  Fortunately, I happened to be sitting next to one of my classmates who had a strong chemistry background and he was kind of enough to walk me through how you can crack—or break—longer chain hydrocarbons into shorter, more economically desirable ones.

At last, it was time to put boot to ground, or rather to “bus” given the weather and the immense size of facility.  Before we could get anywhere near the equipment, we had to travel through a security check-point.  Photo-IDs were cross-listed with a list of visitors; guard dogs were walked around the bus.  The security was necessary given the critical nature of the refining business for the US economy.

Two of the plant’s process engineers—both former Tulane chemical engineering students—hopped aboard the bus and acted as our tour guides. They explained how the crude oil moved through the plant, where various components were diverted for further refining, and the sheer capital investment required for building a plant of such size.  As we rode around, the sheer size and complexity impressed me, it truly was a massive facility, and it was but one of dozens that pepper the US gulf coast, the source of 40% of the petroleum products we consume.

At the conclusion of our tour, we handed all of the Shell-Motiva employees a Tulane University Energy Institute hat, though grateful many were jealous of our Tulane Energy Institute hard hats.  Perhaps next year we will have to order a few more of the Tulane hard hats to hand out to gracious tour guides.

Eric Olson

Master of Management in Energy Candidate 2015

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