Suncor shutdown shrouded in secrecy after freeze damages Commerce City plant

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Suncor Energy’s operations at its Commerce City refinery are shrouded in secrecy after a Dec. 21 malfunction forced the plant to close for up to three months, but industry experts say the closure signals that Suncor intends to do business in Colorado for the long term.

Meanwhile, the secrecy surrounding Suncor’s malfunction, triggered by extremely cold weather, and the following shutdown concern people who live near the refinery. They are worried about the pollution that may be released as the company brings operations back online over the next three months.

While Suncor has said the refinery won’t be fully operational until the end of March, work at the site is ongoing as crews repair damaged equipment and work on maintenance to machinery used to make gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and asphalt. In a statement, Suncor said neighbors will see flaring and hear noise related to its operations.

“There’s trucks. There’s movement. You wouldn’t know it was closed,” said Olga Gonzalez, executive director of Cultivando, a community organization that monitors Suncor’s pollution.

Cold weather can threaten operations at an oil refinery — even one operating in the Rocky Mountains where winter freezes are expected — but typically refineries come back online within a week after a weather shutdown, industry experts said. However, Suncor, which serves as Colorado’s only in-state gasoline producer, will take months to return to full production capacity, and the shutdown has put a squeeze on fuel supply and costs across the state. Suncor’s Commerce City plant refines 98,000 barrels of crude oil a day, producing 35% to 40% of all the gasoline used in Colorado.

But the plant is controversial because it’s a large polluter, releasing chemicals into the air that can cause asthma and other breathing problems, and it’s facing mounting pressure from environmentalists to better control its air emissions. Since the closure was announced, the plant continues to release pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, according to malfunction reports submitted between Dec. 21-29 to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division.

Suncor first shut down units around 8 p.m. on Dec. 21, according to the filings.

Hours earlier Denver’s temperatures took a drastic plunge, dropping 37 degrees in one hour. The National Weather Service says the fast freeze is on record as the third largest one-day temperature change since 1872 with a high of 51 and a low of -10.

Suncor reported that the cold weather tripped its hydrogen plant, forcing the unit to shut down and creating a cascading effect throughout the refinery, according to the Air Pollution Control Division.

A hydrogen plant is critical to any refinery operation, said John Jechura, a Colorado School of Mines professor of practice who teaches a refining class. Hydrogen is necessary to pull out sulphur during the refining process to make gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.

“If the hydrogen plant goes down, you can’t process anything else,” said Jechura, who emphasized that he did not have any inside knowledge about what happened at Suncor. “It can force you to take your refinery down.”

Thus far, Suncor Energy’s public relations staff has declined to provide further details about the shutdown, what caused it and what the plan for restarting will be. In an emailed statement, Loa Esquilin Garcia, a company spokeswoman, said the refinery experienced equipment damage and managers decided to put it in “safe mode” to inspect all units and repair damages.

Matt Kimmel, a principal analyst at the global energy research and consulting firm, said the lengthy shut down indicates one or more pieces of critical equipment was damaged by the deep freeze.

“Typically, the outages only linger if you have significant freeze-related damage to your units, which is what Commerce City is basically admitting to,” Kimmel said. “They’ve got some sort damage that’s going to take a long time to repair. They’re probably still assessing whatever damage occurred from the extreme cold, which is why the timelines are somewhat uncertain.”

The public first learned about Suncor’s troubles in the wee hours of the morning on Dec. 22 when the company broadcast two messages through its Everbridge emergency alert system. The messages warned of a malfunction that forced the company to bring down several units. No injuries were reported, the messages said. There were no warnings about harmful pollutants being released.

However, the state would later confirm that Suncor reported excess emissions of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide as well as smoke during that malfunction.

By the afternoon of Dec. 23, Suncor told the state that some of its units remained shut down while others were operating at a minimal rate.

The next day — Christmas Eve — Suncor management decided to completely shut down the refinery, but it would not notify the public or its investors until Dec. 28.

By then, the refinery had reported two fires, including one on Dec. 24 that injured two workers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation into the fire but will not provide information until it is completed, said Juan Rodriguez, an OSHA spokesman in the agency’s Dallas office. Those investigations take up to six months.

Suncor has not provided an update on its injured employees.

A view of the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City, Colo., on Nov. 23, 2020. (Rachel Ellis/Denver Post file)
A view of the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City, Colo., on Nov. 23, 2020. (Rachel Ellis/Denver Post file)

A profitable plant

The secrecy is not surprising, Kimmel said. His firms monitors refinery stops and starts across the United States by using infrared technology to see what’s happening since the companies are tight-lipped.

“Typically, they won’t highlight what the issues are,” Kimmel said. “That’s to protect their market reputation as well as their own trading strategies because they’ll still be active in that space even if their refinery isn’t running.”

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