New owners take over at Sunoco Philadelphia refinery

Gov. Corbett speaks at the handover. Republican and Democratic officials cooperated to save the refinery.
Gov. Corbett speaks at the handover. Republican and Democratic officials cooperated to save the refinery. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff)
Posted: September 21, 2012

Sunoco Inc. chief executive Brian P. MacDonald on Wednesday handed over the ceremonial keys to the company's Philadelphia oil refinery, saving 850 jobs and giving new life to the sprawling 146-year-old plant.

On a cloudless morning that enhanced a sunny mood, officials marked the transfer of the plant to a new joint venture operated by the Carlyle Group, the Washington private-equity firm.

Business executives, labor leaders, and elected officials of both parties stood together and lauded the cross-cultural, bipartisan cooperation that led to the agreement in July to keep the plant operating after Sunoco announced last year that it wanted to exit refining.

"Hopefully, the transaction will be as good as the publicity has been," said William E. Conway Jr., co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group.

Carlyle will be responsible for operating the facility, the largest refinery on the East Coast. It says it is "reimagining" the plant as a regional energy hub that will rely on growing production of Marcellus Shale natural gas to produce motor fuels, electricity, and chemicals.

"We're not rescuing anything," said Philip L. Rinaldi, the chief executive of the new venture, called Philadelphia Energy Solutions, whose logo was unveiled on the side of a massive fuel-storage tank. "We're coming in here to build industries."

Sunoco, which is being acquired next month by Energy Transfer Partners L.P. of Dallas, will retain a one-third ownership in the refinery and will remain commercially conjoined with the venture. Sunoco's retail fuel stations will be the refinery's biggest customer, and the refinery will be a large customer for Sunoco's regional pipeline network.

"Nobody wants this to be a success more than Sunoco does," said MacDonald.

The refinery's transfer to Carlyle marks the end of more than a century of fuel manufacturing for Sunoco, which began refining in 1894 with the acquisition of a plant in Toledo, Ohio.

Sunoco announced last year that it planned to exit refining, saying there was an oversupply of regional production capacity to meet a shrinking U.S. market for motor fuel. It closed its Marcus Hook refinery and said it had received little interest in the 330,000-barrel-per-day Philadelphia plant, which Sunoco created out of two refineries - Chevron and Atlantic - that it had acquired about 20 years ago.

But under pressure from political and labor leaders to save the refinery and its jobs, MacDonald reached out to Carlyle in March and suggested the joint-venture structure, which dramatically reduces Carlyle's up-front capital costs.

The deal involved a remarkable degree of cooperation among Sunoco, Carlyle, labor, and political leaders, including officials in the White House. Gov. Corbett, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, a Democrat, heaped praise on each other Wednesday. Leo W. Gerard, the international president of the United Steelworkers, extolled the union's cordial relationship with Carlyle executives.

Members of Steelworkers Local 10-1, many of whom pasted Philadelphia Energy Solutions logos over the Sunoco emblems on their blue overalls, were ecstatic.

"You can't please all the people all the time, but we came pretty close in this deal," said Bill Rachubinski, an instrumentation technician who served on the committee that negotiated with Carlyle.

Wednesday's transfer was ceremonial; the formal closing actually occurred about two weeks ago.

The ceremony occurred while leaders of the natural gas industry are convening in Philadelphia for the Shale Gas Insight conference to examine Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale boom.

A focus of the conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center is new industrial markets for natural gas. Philadelphia Energy Solutions is an example of a business that is being reconfigured to take advantage of new natural gas supplies, which are priced at about one-sixth the cost of an equivalent amount of petroleum.

Rinaldi said the refinery would be a "major consumer" of shale gas to enhance fuel production, allowing the plant to extract more gallons of gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel from each barrel of crude oil.

Rinaldi said the operation would also use shale gas to produce steam and electricity at a new cogeneration plant. He also envisions building units to produce liquid fuels from shale gas and to make urea ammonium nitrate fertilizer from natural gas.


Contact Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947, @Maykuth on Twitter or amaykuth@phillynews.com.

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