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* Unit activity seen down Tuesday afternoon - Genscape
* Motiva says unit to go on partial circulation for repair
By Erwin Seba
HOUSTON, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Motiva Enterprises' new 325,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) crude distillation unit at its Port Arthur, Texas, refinery will likely not be repaired before Friday or Saturday, sources familiar with operations said on Tuesday.
At least one section of the unit, known as VPS-5, has been taken out of production to repair a small leak that caused a brief Monday morning blaze - the second in two weeks on the unit - the sources said.
Energy industry intelligence group Genscape detected decreased furnace activity from VPS-5 on Tuesday afternoon, pointing to the unit beginning partial circulation. Earlier on Tuesday, a Motiva spokeswoman said the unit would be on partial circulation beginning sometime Tuesday to repair a leak.
Circulation is when feedstock is run through a refining unit but no product is being made, a process refining experts liken to putting a car in neutral.
The unit, which is the centerpiece of a $10 billion, five-year expansion by Motiva's co-owners Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Saudi Aramco to more than double the refinery's capacity to 600,000 bpd, started running for the first time in late April.
However, it was shut in early June for six months of repairs due to a leak of caustic sodium hydroxide, which cracked and pitted piping. Motiva has been attempting to restart VPS-5 since early this month.
Motiva also said VPS-5 was running at reduced rates prior to going on partial circulation Tuesday afternoon.
Earlier on Tuesday, sources familiar with operations at the Port Arthur refinery had said the company was planning to shut VPS-5 to repair the leak that caused Monday's fire, thought to be due to vapor leaking from around a clamp.
VPS-5 has two sections: an atmospheric section which refines crude oil at atmospheric pressure and a vacuum section, which further refines crude oil in a vacuum. The sources said the leak was in one of the two sections, but were not clear as to which.
A fire broke out at VPS-5 on Monday just a week after another fire was set off by mechanical problems.
Motiva spokeswoman Kimberly Windon said on Monday that the unit was stable and the restart was on schedule for early 2013. Sources had told Reuters the company wanted to return VPS-5 to production by the end of December.
Motiva has consistently reached targets ahead of schedule during the repair of the unit.
Reports of problems at the Motiva unit lifted Gulf Coast conventional M4 gasoline 2.25 cents a gallon to 25.50 cents under the January RBOB gasoline futures contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). A4 CBOB gasoline was up a cent a gallon at 29.00 cents under NYMEX RBOB futures.
Both M4 and A4 gasoline cycles are scheduled to move on the Colonial Pipeline Tuesday.
A crude distillation unit does the initial refining of crude oil coming into a refinery and provides feedstock to all other units.
A total of eight new units were built as part of the expansion. The seven other units have successfully started up and remain in operation.
The older section of the refinery, which had a crude oil throughput capacity of 285,000 bpd, has continued to operate since April.
"We continue to operate other units within the refinery, making gasoline and other products to meet customer needs," Windon added.