WHITING | One of two fluid catalytic units, or cat crackers, at the Midwest's largest refinery will likely be down for weeks and cost millions of dollars to repair, according to sources close the situation.

Last week, a feed pump to the 60,000-barrel-per-day FCU 600 unit failed "catastrophically" and suffered a motor fire at BP Whiting Refinery. Sources familiar with the refinery say the unplanned outage was "significant" and would have an impact on production, since it's one of only two cat crackers at the 413,000-barrel-per-day refinery that Standard Oil built in 1889.

The cat crackers stand 12 stories high behind the glass office buildings at the refinery's entrance on Indianapolis Boulevard. They convert crude oil into gasoline and other petroleum products. The production unit that went offline last week had produced an average of 48,000 barrels a day.

BP says it continues to make oil and meet the needs of its customers. The London-based company does not comment on production levels.

The larger cat cracker can produce up to 110,000 barrels per day, but if it goes down as well, it's "game over," sources say. The sprawling refinery on Lake Michigan's southern shore, which provides seven Midwestern states with gasoline, would no longer be able to make gas.

Replacement workers have been operating the refinery since 1,100 United Steelworkers members went on strike on Feb. 8. BP says the stand-ins include managers and former employees who are well-trained and capable of running the refinery. Union members have questioned whether the replacement workers really have the refinery under control, after the failure of Pipe Still 11C and a series of dramatic flare-ups that filled the Whiting sky with smoke and fire.

In the latest setback, the cat cracker failed when cat – a powdery cement additive that's briefly exposed to crude oil to trigger a chemical change – clogged the production unit. Normally, it is supposed to circulate through the system, breaking up oil hydrocarbon molecules into gasoline, wet gas and wild gas. 

The cat content in the system is not supposed to exceed 6 percent because it can bind when it becomes concentrated, and the production unit failed when the cat content rose between 20 percent and 80 percent last week, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Pipes got clogged to a degree that was almost unprecedented and hasn't occurred at the refinery since the 1990s. Repairs are estimated to take at least four weeks, and contractors would have to be called in to drill through clogged piping.

Cat crackers can be dangerous and susceptible to explode when restarted, because volatile elements can mix if it's not done correctly, sources familiar with the situation said.

USW spokeswoman Lynne Hancock said it wasn't clear whether malfunctions at the Whiting refinery or other facilities across the country helped motivate the oil companies to reach a national agreement Thursday.

"I don't know if that's what prompted the resolution of these issues, or if the change over to summer blends was a factor," she said. "It's summer driving season, gas is really cheap and there are profits to be made if the refineries are being run by people who know how."


Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.