Related Story: 3News Special Report: Pipeline To Power
When thing's really go wrong at a refinery our camera's are there to capture the action. This is one of the few times viewers get an up close look at the plants. The monuments of steel and steam are the first thing visitors see as they approach the city along Interstate 37.
We thought it might be interesting to give everyone a look behind the gate at one of our refineries. Flint Hills agreed to show us around their place and we took them up on their offer.
Once inside, we went straight to the nerve center of the refinery. It's called the central control room. It's located at the West plant off Suntide. Mike Fessenden is the daylight shift manager.
"These gentlemen here run the mid and West crude unit and they're also responsible for monitoring our first and third stage flare," says Fessenden.
The workers train their eyes on the computer screens to make sure every area of the plant is running properly. They have the power to shutdown or turn on practically anything and everything in the East and West plants. With that much authority, comes a lot of training. Fessenden told us it takes about a years worth of training to get someone ready to take on the responsibility of this job.
"Today it's real time, in the past it was a phone call. Someone would drive a truck over to a unit and have a conversation that way, but today it's instantaneous when something happens here they know about it over there. So without central control there's a lot of thing's we couldn't do that we do today," says Fessenden.
Flint hills handles about 300,000 barrels of oil per day. Of course, a lot of that oil is coming from right here in Texas. Drilling rigs are popping up all over the state with the Eagle Ford Shale discovery pumping billions of dollars into our economy. Here at the plant, all that product is stored in huge tanks. Some can hold half a million barrels of oil.
"We blend mixtures of crudes. In this case some foreign crude and some domestic crude and we pump that into our crude units," says Rolland Longoria with Flint Hills.
The crude units at the West plant separate out the salt and sand from the oil. Then the crude is sent to a heater tower where different temperatures help to transform it into diesel, jet fuel and of course gasoline. It takes about 24 hours to complete the process.
"You have a lot of employees here and it's a process of taking something that's naturally occurring in the ground and using technology if you will that will translate into a product that will help the community provides gasoline, plastic bottles," says Valerie Pompa, Flint Hills Production Manager.
There's another thing people may wonder about. What's all that smokey stuff that's always coming from the plants?
"What you're seeing in those steam clouds is just it, steam so no different than if you had a teapot at home or an iron you're heating up water and that's a vent for that steam and why you see it more on some days has to do with humidity and other outside conditions," says Pompa.
There's also the question about the flares we always seem to see on the news. Sometimes the flames can be seen for miles.
"The flares are pure and simple a safety device and our philosophy around our plants is they're there for one purpose emergency only and you'll never see Flint Hills using flaring to try and increase production. In fact, when you flare you're losing a lot of money so it's counterintuitive that you would ever flare to make money," says Flint Hills Plant Manager, Phil Gaarder.
Once all the crude is turned into various fuels the final product is sent out through these pipelines that run all through the plant.
There are two pipelines with both going to North Texas. Flint Hills is looking to get more of that Eagle Ford oil into its plant. That's why it's working on completing a new pipeline from Pettus in Bee County to another site just outside of Taft. Koch Pipeline is in charge of the project.
"We're really in a boom. This is one of the biggest opportunities in this area for crude oil and we're sitting really on the Eagle Ford play which is one of the largest crude oil plays in the united states," says Steve Ostrom, Director of Engineering for Koch Pipeline.
The Eagle Ford Shale promises to keep refinery row running at full capacity as they work behind the gate to keep the country going.