Refinery preparing to better process oil-rich shale

When Robert E. Yancey Sr. was president of Ashland Oil Inc. in 1980, he picked up a fist-sized rock on his desktop in his Russell office and asked a reporter, “Do you know what this is? It’s shale, and it holds the future to the oil industry in this country. This region has lots of shale. All we have to do is find a way to economically extract the oil from the shale.”

At the time, Yancey seemed to be telling a fairy tale from a science fiction novel. Sure, there may be some oil in shale, but how was it possible to separate the oil from the rock without breaking the bank? If we did not know Yancey to be an excellent executive and an extremely smart man, we would have dismissed his comments.

The future Bob Yancey was talking about has arrived and the Catlettsburg Marathon Petroleum refinery is investing about $140 million in a new system to allow workers to better use American shale resources for fuel and other resources.

Marathon Petroleum officials made the announcement of the huge investment last week. The highlight of the day was a new system that delivers a crude form of oil to the Catlettsburg facility by river barge, with capacity to store the material until it is time to be processed in the new “splitter” unit.

The three-year project represents a tremendous investment in local system capacities, and helps assure the refinery will continue to be a major employer in this region for years to come.

“We love $140 million dollar days,” one local economic development official whispered with a grin as Catlettsburg plant general manager Rich Hernandez welcomed a crowd, including many Marathon workers who’ve been involved with the project since the first of 4,135 construction drawings was passed around for approval.

Hernandez explained the company has invested a total of $250 million in Catlettsburg as well as Canton to increase capacity to process fuel-rich shale that is mined in several parts of the country, including Ohio. Another official explained the project was divided into three major components — barge facilities, tanks and the “splitter” which uses heat to allow separation of the shale’s components. The compounds split from the condensate can be used in the manufacture of fuels such as diesel and gasoline, as well as useful gas components.

Local labor and resources were used whenever possible since the project began three years ago, Hernandez said.

“With nearly all of the construction labor and some construction materials sourced in the Tri-State area, the splitter project at the Catlettsburg refinery has already positively impacted the local economy. Additionally, four new full-time positions have been added at the refinery to operate the new equipment,” Hernandez said.

The project involved more than 1,000 construction workers, with about 600 on site during peak construction, with 39 different construction firms supervising aspects of the job. The project had 84 engineers, used 13 miles of 6-inch pipe, required 400,000 tons of rock to be installed — about the same amount removed during construction of Mount Rushmore — with more than 3,000 cubic yards of concrete, 555 tons of steel, and 48 miles of wire in 10 miles of conduit, according to Marathon officials.

As we read about the huge investment Marathon is making and has already made to process shale, memories of that long-ago interview with Bob Yancey Sr. came rushing back. Not being well-trained scientists, we did not know then whether Yancey was predicting the future or talking nonsense. Now we know. He was talking about the future and the future has arrived.

The Independent, Ashland

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