Baby Break It Down, Part 3 - Staffing Refineries and Petrochemical Facilities in a Time of Social Distancing

COVID-19 has created a number of challenges across the energy value chain, including lower demand for motor gasoline and jet fuel and, subsequently, surplus crude oil. However, even with diminished demand, the facilities that produce and process these fuels have to keep operating at some level, as do petrochemical plants. Workers in the energy industry are considered essential due to the importance of having fuel available to power vehicles and manufacturing facilities, natural gas to enable continued operation of power industries, and logistical infrastructure to ensure that feedstock supply can make it to processing facilities and eventually consumers. Given the need for round-the-clock operations, COVID-related social distancing measures have presented a unique challenge for refinery and petrochemical facilities. To maintain adequate staffing while protecting personnel from the coronavirus, these facilities have been making major adjustments. If, as we all hope, things begin moving back toward “normal” in the coming months and refinery and petchem utilization ramps up, these efforts to keep workers safe will only gain in significance. Today, we discuss staffing issues in these key industry sectors during the pandemic.

In recent weeks, we have all heard about the challenges that another essential sector of the U.S. economy — the meat-processing industry — has faced regarding COVID, resulting in plant shutdowns and beef, pork and chicken shortages, not to mention the health impacts to the workers themselves. Refineries and petrochemical plants must also deal with similar personnel issues while already reeling from the blow dealt to demand. RBN has blogged extensively over the past couple of months about the upheavals that the COVID pandemic has caused in just about every nook and cranny of the energy industry. In One Thing Leads to Another and Can’t Get Enough of It, we examined the big changes happening in the market for all NGLs, including ethane and propane — the two most important feedstocks for U.S. steam crackers. For crude oil, the factors affecting the U.S. supply and demand balance were discussed in How Much More Can I Take. On the supply side, we looked at the impact of shut-ins in last week’s Shut Down. On the demand front, Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on refineries looked at the various approaches that refineries have been taking to reduce their overall throughput. Figure 1, below, shows just how underutilized North American refining capacity is currently with the dashed red boxes identifying cutbacks specifically attributable to COVID.

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