Sunoco to sell or close S. Phila., Marcus Hook refineries

Posted: September 06, 2011

Sunoco Inc., an iconic Philadelphia company that was long a mainstay of manufacturing along the Delaware River, announced Tuesday it is getting out of the refining business.

Sunoco said it would sell its oil refineries in South Philadelphia and Marcus Hook. If there are no buyers, it plans to close the plants in July 2012.

About 1,500 of Sunoco's 10,000 employees work in refining, according to the company.

The move is the latest and most dramatic divestiture initiated by Lynn L. Elsenhans, the chief executive officer who took over Sunoco three years ago and has systematically dismantled what was left of the former industrial giant.

"Anybody who didn't see it coming wasn't paying attention," said Jim Savage, president of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, which represents about 600 workers at the South Philadelphia refinery who could be out of work next year.

Under Elsenhans, Sunoco has sold two refineries in the Midwest, closed its Eagle Point refinery in Gloucester County, spun off its metallurgical coke business and sold its home heating oil business. Last month, it sold the last of its chemicals manufacturing operations.

Elsenhans has made clear in the last year that Sunoco's profit-challenged refineries were not a core operation, and that the company's future resides as a retail reseller of fuel and convenience-store items, as well as in the transportation of fuels through its logistics network.

"We have made progress in increasing the efficiency of our refineries over the last several years," she said in a statement, "but given the unacceptable financial performance of these assets, it is clear that it is in the best interests of shareholders to exit this business and focus on our profitable retail and logistics businesses, which have higher returns, growth potential, and provide steady, ratable cash flow."

While the broader stock market was falling, Sunoco shares were up 5.6 percent in afternoon trading, to $38.11 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Sunoco said it would conduct a comprehensive strategic review of the company to determine the best way to deliver value to shareholders. Credit Suisse Securities L.L.C. has been retained to assist in the review process.

"No option is off the table," Elsenhans said in a conference call Tuesday with investment analysts.

Some analysts suggested no buyers might want to run the Philadelphia area plants as refineries. But Elsenhans said the plants have potential value as fuel terminals or other commercial or industrial activities.

Sunoco opened the Marcus Hook refinery in 1901 to refine crude oil brought up by ship from Texas. In 1988 and in 1994, it acquired the Atlantic Petroleum Corp. refinery and then the Chevron Corp. refinery in South Philadelphia and combined the two plants into one operation along the Schuylkill.

The American refining industry has suffered in recent years from a reduction in demand caused by the economic downturn, improved fuel mileage of vehicles and the introduction of ethanol into motor fuels.

Domestic refiners say they're also at a competitive disadvantage with imported fuels from overseas refiners who face less rigid environmental controls.

Sunoco's refineries in Southeastern Pennsylvania have the added disadvantage of relying on more expensive low-sulfur crude as their raw material, which has depressed their profitability relative to other refineries.

Whether another buyer can run the refineries more profitably than Sunoco will be a big question confronting potential buyers.

While Sunoco was unable to sell its Eagle Point refinery in New Jersey, Valero Energy Corp. was able to sell its refineries in Paulsboro, N.J., and Delaware City, Del., in recent years to PBF Energy Company L.L.C.

Together the Marcus Hook and Philadelphia refineries can process more than 500,000 barrels of crude a day, making them one of the largest refining centers in the country.

In reality, the company started 125 years ago by Joseph Newton Pew and Edward O. Emerson had been shrinking for decades before Elsenhans took over in 2008, just as the economy tanked.

Sunoco once explored for oil in the United States and overseas and ran a massive shipbuilding operation before spinning off those businesses to concentrate on refining and marketing.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or