Congressional hearing focuses on Philadelphia-area oil refineries

Posted: March 20, 2012

Devon Crawford was happy to run into some of his old coworkers Monday, but he wished they were meeting a few miles away along the Delaware River, amid the grit and refinery flares.

"It's unfortunate that we have to see each other like we're seeing each other," he told them.

The occasion was a congressional hearing in Aston Township, Delaware County, on the closing of oil refineries in nearby Trainer and Marcus Hook and an impending shutdown in South Philadelphia.

Crawford, the father of boys 10 and 14 who worked as a pump operator at ConocoPhillips in Trainer, is among the hundreds who have lost their jobs. He likened Monday's impromptu reunion at a sleek auditorium at Neumann University to a wake where one meets up with old friends.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) convened the hearing to address national-security issues related to the closings and the nation's oil supplies. A Department of Homeland Security official assured that the government was busily assessing the threats.

"Economic security, energy security, and national security are all intertwined," said U.S. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), who joined Meehan and U.S. Rep. John Carney (D., Del.) in questioning witnesses.

"The decline of domestic regional refining in our nation is alarming and, in my view, will affect our national and homeland security," said Meehan, chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence.

The factors that led to the loss of Crawford's job and those of his former coworkers were at the center of dispassionate testimony by government and industry experts.

The comments focused on economic realities, and the paradox of rising gasoline prices at a time of robust supply and decreasing domestic demand. People have been driving less, cars are more fuel-efficient, and gasoline contains ethanol.

"There's a lot of things that go on in the global marketplace that we can't control," said Charles T. Drevna, president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.

Chief among them, said Robert Greco, an official with the American Petroleum Institute, is the price of crude oil, which accounts for 75 percent of pump prices.

"Rising global demand and Middle East tensions have pushed the cost of crude oil higher," he said.

In addition, he said, U.S. environmental regulations were further driving up costs.

Drevna said Northeast refineries such as the one Sunoco plans to close in Philadelphia and the one it is closing in Marcus Hook have struggled with a particular disadvantage. They were designed for light sweet crude rather than the less-expensive crude used at refineries elsewhere in the nation.

Those Northeast refineries supply 40 percent of the gasoline and 45 percent of the heating oil consumed in this region, according to Howard Gruenspecht, acting administrator with the Energy Information Administration.

"If Sunoco Philadelphia refinery closes, prices would likely rise," he said, adding that it was impossible to predict by how much.

Denis J. Stephano, president of the United Steelworkers Union local that represents the workers, said he remained hopeful that refining would survive in the region.

"We're worn down," said Stephano, himself laid off, but "I want to remain optimistic."

He did not hear everything he wanted Monday, but he said that holding the hearing in Aston was of more than symbolic value, in that it keeps the issue alive. "These committees all need to be looking at and talking about how are we going to keep the refining industry alive," he said.

Stephano, who worked in the machine shop, and Crawford said they missed the refinery's camaraderie. They recalled working for an assortment of enlightened and misguided managers, but overall, most folks got along.

"You miss your guys," Crawford said. "I loved my job."


Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-761-8423 or twood@phillynews.com.

|
|
|
|
|