South Philadelphia oil refinery to close after fire, explosion

The owner of the largest oil refinery complex on the East Coast is telling officials that it will close the facility after a fire last week set off explosions and damaged equipment there.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement Wednesday that Philadelphia Energy Solutions had informed him of its decision to shut down the facility in the next month. The more than 1,000 workers there will be impacted, the mayor said.

The amount of gasoline that will be lost from the refinery is sizable, but it can easily be made up by imports from Europe or elsewhere, said Jonathan Aronson, research analyst at Cornerstone Macro.

"We're not expecting any major shocks to retail gasoline (prices)," Aronson said. Consumers are more likely to feel gasoline prices increase due to the price of crude oil, which has been rallying in recent days, he said. 

The refinery has been an important source fueling transportation in the Northeast, which is situated far from Gulf Coast refineries, and "at least temporarily, it's going to require some logistical shifting that could come at a cost," said Kevin Book, managing director at Clearview Energy Partners.

Old oil refineries on the East Coast are not always the most sophisticated or cost-competitive, so the case for their economic survival has been pretty bleak for a long time, Book said. "Refining in general is a tough business. But it's a lot tougher at one of these old, lower-complexity facilities," he added.

A Philadelphia Energy Solutions spokeswoman had not responded to a request for comment Wednesday morning. The company also has recently struggled financially.

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The 150-year-old oil refining complex processes 335,000 barrels of crude oil daily, according to PES. The refinery turns the crude into gasoline, jet fuel, propane, home heating oil and other products.

It started as a bulk petroleum storage facility in 1866, and began refinery operations in 1870.

The company emerged from federal bankruptcy court last year after restructuring its debt, leaving its majority ownership in the hands of investment banking firms Credit Suisse Asset Management and Bardin Hill.

Friday's fire at the complex broke out early in the morning, and video showed an enormous orange blast bursting into the sky.

It set off three explosions, felt miles away, as the fire plowed through a tangle of pipes carrying fuel across the complex, the company has said. It happened at the Girard Point refinery, one of two at the PES complex in south Philadelphia.

The fire erupted in a tank containing a mix of butane and propane, a fire official said.

You can read the mayor’s full statement below:

“I spoke with the CEO and leadership of Philadelphia Energy Solutions this morning and can confirm that PES intends to shut down the refinery within the next month. I’m extremely disappointed for the more than one thousand workers who will be immediately impacted by this closure, as well as other businesses that are dependent on the refinery operations. The City is committed to supporting them during this difficult time in any way possible. We will immediately convene a group of City and quasi-governmental organizations to discuss the economic and employment impacts, and what the City is able to do in response. We are also retooling the plans of the working group led by the City’s Managing Director and Fire Commissioner to focus efforts on determining the future of the refinery, assisting PES to transition the site safely, communicating with local residents, and supporting the employees impacted PES’ decision.”

— Mayor Jim Kenney on the South Philadelphia oil refinery closure.