Addressing a different sense of urgency

After Hurricane Harvey hit, this CSE alumnus helped a refinery run again

When hurricanes hit Texas, our oil supply is affected. The Gulf Coast is the center of the U.S. refining industry and nearly a dozen refineries were forced to halt operations in Corpus Christi, Houston, and Port Arthur/ Beaumont. The closures took out 20 percent of the U.S. refinery capacity. University of Minnesota alumnus Jay Axness (Mechanical Engineering ’08) helped get gasoline flowing again.

Axness was a section supervisor overseeing 20 engineers at ExxonMobil’s Baytown Area facilities just east of Houston, one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world.

Baytown Refinery itself processes 580,000 barrels of crude oil daily and several chemical and plastic plants nearby produce other products, ranging from butyl used in car tires to polyethylene found in shrink wrap. For safety, almost everything had to be shut down when the storm hit.

“You can’t just flip a switch,” Axness said.

“It takes a long time to shut down and even longer to start up,,” he explained. “It’s not like an assembly line where you can turn the conveyor belt off and then back on again.”

While a small crew worked and slept on air mattresses at the refinery during the storm, Axness worked from home, keeping tabs on the engineers who reported to him.

Amazingly, none suffered major flooding, even though many buildings in Houston stood in more than four feet of water. The city’s drainage system was overwhelmed by the deluge and many streets became a secondary drainage system, making travel impossible.

By the time Axness returned to the refinery, the flood had receded.

A checklist of priorities

The first priority was to repair the refinery’s docks and clear debris from the Houston Shipping Channel so gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel could be brought in by tankers from facilities not affected by the hurricane. Panicked consumers were stockpiling fuel and prices had gone up.

“People were going to gas stations and filling up their vehicle and then filling several five-gallon containers,” Axness said.

“They were doing gas runs, like a run on a bank,” he added. “People were creating a gas shortage where we may not have otherwise had one.”

Once enough gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel was flowing to meet immediate needs, teams turned to the refinery. Axness worked in an incident response room dispatching engineers to make inspections and repairs wherever they were needed.

“It felt a little like a call center,” he said. “I was lead for all engineering. I sat right next to operations and mechanical and it was basically find out what needs to get done and find someone in the right discipline who wasn’t dealing with flooding at home and get them there.”

Getting a refinery back up

During the several weeks it took to get the refinery back up, off-duty ExxonMobil employees volunteered with the American Red Cross and other relief efforts. In Beaumont, where the storm knocked out the city’s water system, engineers from the offline Beaumont refinery used their expertise to help the city build eight temporary pipelines to pump water from the Neches River.

By the time the hurricane hit, Axness had worked nine years in the oil industry. He began his career with an internship through the University’s co-op program with ExxonMobil in Houston.

“I enjoyed the work and the team and challenges, so I decided to come full time,” Axness said.

He’s always worked with “fixed equipment,” which includes valves, pipes, storage tanks, reactors, distillation towers, and pretty much anything that doesn’t have rotating parts. The oil industry also divides itself into upstream, midstream, and downstream operations. Upstream explores and drills for crude oil or natural gas. Midstream focuses on transporting it, in pipelines or trucks.

Downstream, which is where Axness works, takes crude and turns it into something useful, “whether it’s motor gasoline or jet fuel or the chemical products that go into making plastic or rubber or wax,” said Axness.

“People don’t realize it, but almost anything you use on a daily basis is impacted by oil and gas,” noted Axness.

Axness’ regular duties involved overseeing fixed equipment during scheduled maintenance “turnarounds,” when a portion of the refinery is shut down for inspection and repairs. Restarting Baytown after Harvey involved similar tasks and long hours. But being part of the broader recovery effort made it feel different.

“In the middle of the hurricane recovery, we had multiple sites shut down and not producing gasoline for people’s cars, not producing jet fuel,” he said. “Ultimately, I was doing what we do every day, but this had a different sense of urgency and perspective.”

Story by Maja Beckstrom

To read about CSE alumnus Kenton Spading's experience with Hurricane Harvey, visit our online story "Restoring infrastructure to rebuild lives." 

To read about CSE alumnus Ruben Otero De Leon memories of Hurricane Maria, visit our online story "Puerto Rico flashback."