* Unit working 20 pct above design limit posed 'imminent
* Loss of REDUC coking unit cut diesel output
* Petrobras expects to have coking unit working again by
(Adds Petrobras statement, paragraph 5)
By Jeb Blount
RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 6 Workers at a Petrobras
refinery near Rio de Janeiro warned the state-owned oil company
in October that a key unit, now shut after a Saturday fire, was
"dangerously" above capacity, union officials told Reuters.
Since August, Petrobras has been using the coking
unit at its REDUC Refinery in suburban Rio to process about
6,000 cubic meters (37,740 barrels) a day of thick, vacuum-unit
residue - 20 percent more than its design capacity of 5,000
cubic meters (31,450 barrels) a day, the union said.
"Petrobras is operating at the limits, and we've warned them
repeatedly that there was an imminent danger of an accident,"
said Simao Zanardi, president of the union known as Sindipetro
Duque de Caxias. "This has been a very bad end of the year for
our members at REDUC and other Petrobras refineries."
Petrobras officials did not respond to telephone and email
requests for comment on the union's safety and operations
criticisms following the fire on Saturday, the latest in a
string of accidents at REDUC and other refineries.
A Petrobras statement said the company expects to restart
the coking unit on Friday. It said the rest of the refinery was
operating normally and supplies to the market were not hampered.
The REDUC refinery's coking unit processes the residue into
diesel, gasoline and cooking gas. Other refining units at REDUC
also produce those products, the union said.
According to documents sent to government ministries and
labor-law prosecutors, dated Oct. 2, the strain on capacity put
the 242,000-barrel-a-day refinery in "grave and imminent risk
... of an industrial disaster." The union provided copies of the
documents to Reuters on Monday.
The strain, according to union officials, is the result of
Petrobras running its 13 Brazilian refineries at 95 percent of
capacity or more. The company is pushing its refineries to the
limit, they argue, because Petrobras can't keep up with domestic
fuel demand, forcing it to import.
The urgency has been heightened by government pricing
policies that force Petrobras to sell imported fuel at a loss.
Those policies have resulted in more than 30 billion reais
($12.7 billion) of refining-and-supply-unit losses at Petrobras
in the last two years. U.S. refineries operate at about 87
percent capacity according to the U.S. Energy Information
The union also blames a lack of appropriate maintenance for
the Saturday blaze, which forced the processing unit that caught
fire to be shut down.
The incident follows a November fire that put Petrobras'
200,000-barrel-a-day REPAR Refinery near Curitiba, Brazil out of
service for nearly a month and forced the company to hire a
fleet of tankers to import emergency fuel supplies from as far
away as India.
On Nov. 24, a worker was injured at REDUC's lubricants unit
when a compressor blew apart and another compressor exploded
seven days later, but with no injuries, Zanardi said. The
refinery also suffered a fire in its lab in December, he added.
In December, Brazil's petroleum regulator ANP confirmed a
151,500-real fine on Petrobras for operating its
365,000-barrel-a-day REPLAN Refinery in Sao Paulo state at above
its licensed capacity.
The Saturday fire knocked out six pumps leading REDUC's
coking unit, said Zanardi, who toured the damaged unit on
Sunday. As the unit is near the end of the refining train, its
outage does not halt all output at the plant, but its loss has
caused the refinery to lose "a significant amount" of diesel
output, Zanardi said.
Zanardi said "an army of workers" is working around the
clock to fix the pumps and that Petrobras hopes to have the
coking unit running again within a week.
The coking unit is important for the refinery's efficiency
and profitability. It squeezes higher-value gasoline, diesel and
cooking gas from a residue that once was used to make
lower-value asphalt. When coking is complete, the leftover
petroleum coke is used to fuel electrical power stations or
provide heat for industrial processes, like cement making and
Brazil's oil regulator, ANP, said it is investigating the
reasons for the fire and that supplies of fuel to Brazilian
consumers will not be affected.
($1 = 2.37 Brazilian reais)
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Nick
Zieminski and Eric Walsh)