The American Petroleum Institute had me out for a tour of the premier oil refinery in the U.S. Located out or up in Billings Montana, depending on where you are, this refinery is in a truly beautiful and picturesque location smack in the middle of a mid sized city. It’s an easy walk from the downtown area to the front entrance. You might be thinking, “What were they thinking?” putting such a thing in the middle of town, along the scenic and pristine Yellowstone River. Well it was 1949 . . .

The ConocoPhillips Billings Refinery Seen From Downtown

The refinery is the ConocoPhillips Billings Unit. It runs about 50+ thousand barrels a day, not real small nor is it a behemoth. The most striking thing coming up on it is – it doesn’t smell. If it does, its being overwhelmed by the livestock market not far away that offers much more powerful aromas. You might say that Billings smells of money. In truth though, the yards are full of cattle, so it’s not like hogs, fish or a poultry facility. What struck me, with my experience is more than the lack of aromas, was that the refinery was calm, clean, relaxed and running at full tilt. The staff knows what they’re doing here. It’s more than that though.

The management at ConocoPhillips is a little different than say Chevron or ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil, which while everyone likes to diss them, is the world’s leading engineering oil and gas, refining and petrochemical company. That sort of explains the psychology there. Chevron based in California is more adventurous, out going and involved, looking into everything, may have a little attention deficit – certainly has a little West Coast bend in its thinking and corporate culture. ConocoPhillips is a more Oil Patch company, which means they are more middle American, conscious of the neighbors and engaging in the community. Little differences like that have major effects outside of the companies themselves and our views of them.

Starting in 1990 ConocoPhillips went so far as to setup citizen advisory councils at its refinery complexes. These groups are the organized connection to the neighbors with the refinery complexes. With such a group, regular folks can participate, get access, and meet leaders that affect their lives and affect them back. With such a potential offered by refineries in a community from great paying jobs and investments, over to the reality of a huge volatile and inflammable concentration of fuel products, involvement is an important thing.

CP Refinery at night looking at the fractioning section

The night prior to the tour found we bloggers at a little dinner party with ConocoPhillips managers and members of the Citizens Advisory Council. Middle America with a western tint. These people, with divergent views are very relaxed and comfortable with each other. Its easy to see with such a sense of purposeful camaraderie, that keeping an important facility in top operating order that plays a major regional role running so well that it wins national awards isn’t so hard when the personal influences are so dignified and respectful of one another. Maybe it was the food, but that was a very nice dinner party, and offers that major plant operations can have extraordinary relations with the neighbors.

The tour was mostly in the “learning center” outside of the refinery itself. It was SAFETY SAFETY SAFETY from Reed Marton.

This is what goes on in a refinery from Tim Seidel and is linked right here in a PowerPoint presentation that Jane Van Ryan at the API pried away from ConocoPhillips for you to see, too.

The tour itself was from inside a van type limo as letting a bunch of people out to run about in such a place isn’t a good idea at all. Lots of stuff in a refinery is very hot, from below air ambient to over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and the flammable products are from bituminous high sulfur crude oil (not especially ignitable) all the way up to pure hydrogen gas at over 1300 psi pressure (extremely ignitable). I was happy to be in the van, close enough, as I have a good idea what that product range means and the results if an ignition source meets oxygenated fuel.

The impression I took away was that the plant is in as close to perfect shape as one could want. As noted, the aromas were weak if noticeable at all. The ship shape condition would do a nasty Admiral proud, not but one spot where something gooey had escaped over the edge of a tank ever so slightly to make a stain in the paint. And clean, you couldn’t possibly think this facility is 49 years old. It’s so efficient that it won an EnergyStar award twice. The guy every headhunter wants, that takes care of this bewildering array of fracture units, catalytic cracker, coker, tubing, storage, hydrogen production, and even a steam driven electrical generator from excess steam energy is Gerald Knoyle.

Keeping the whole thing in order is Mike Wirkowski, the plant manager who is soon to be lost to a ConocoPhillips refinery in England. Mike has the ideal personality and character to handle the tensions of a refinery in the middle of town. He will be missed I’m sure, but the people staying will surely support and bring the next manager up to speed in what must be one of the best working environments for a manager imaginable.

ConocoPhillips Billings Leadership GroupThe other bloggers are Bruce “McQ” McQuain, a favorite of mine both on the net and even more in person. Here is his take on the trip at Next is Courtney Carlisle, young, smart, confident, and way cute, she writes at which is a collection of writers that kindly put covers lots of turf.

There was also a team from Stanford’s led by Clay Hamilton and with Luke Leaver, a bright impressionable young man from New Zealand. They were busy getting videos of everything, as Mr. Hamilton is an accomplished producer, until we got inside the refinery only to learn that an unidentified threat to the refinery was in investigation and everything photo and video was restricted until the threat had been closed. It would have been great to get more than the few shots they were allowed with the guide’s commentary. But I kind of think Clay is sharp enough to get something good, and the guide, Andy Holman is a sharp one too, and offered a great deal of information that would be highly educational when the Stanford site gets it up.

It was a very quick trip. Fly, dinner, sleep, Stella’s (OMG! The bakery for morning diet destruction!) training, tour, fly. If it weren’t for the weather and airline operations I would have been gone about 30 hours total. The API again provided the travel, lodging and food without cost to me, so that’s disclosed, but the PowerPoint presentation linked above and when the Stanford team posts video, that money will be well spent getting America’s best example of an oil refinery out to anyone interested in learning what the current best standards are and where other refineries are inexorably headed.

There are three other people who need credited, Jane Van Ryan of the API, her aide from Edelman, Kate Shirley, and ConocoPhillips’ own John McLemore who showed the grace and courtesy of the very refined southern gentleman. To this trio I give a thank you both of my own and for all of you, too.


37 Comments so far

  1. Twitterdee and Twitterdum on June 17, 2008 9:20 PM

    Looks like the utopia of oil refining. Good information; will check out the Smart Energy vlog once it hits the site.

  2. On the Shell Oil Platform with Margot Gerritsen | New Energy and Fuel on October 10, 2008 6:02 AM

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