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A fire broke out overnight at Exxon Mobil Corp.'s Baton Rouge oil refinery, halting production at the fifth-biggest fuel-making plant in the U.S.

The shutdown at the complex -- which supplies fuel products across the southeast U.S. and up to New York Harbor -- means the refinery needs fewer barrels of crude oil, depressing a market already reeling from the coronavirus crisis in China. But it could help ease a gasoline glut on the Gulf Coast, where stockpiles hit a record in late January.

The fire started around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, Baton Rouge Fire Department spokesman Curt Monte said. No injuries were reported, he said.

"We've seen reports of people saying explosion. I can tell you there was no explosion," Monte told reporters at a morning news conference Wednesday.

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"We want the people to know that there has not been any off-site impact, and we're going to continue to be out here as long as it takes to make sure that that doesn't happen," he said.

The fire was contained to the site where it started, Monte said. The glow of the fire could be seen from miles away, news outlets reported.

Caleb Christopher Leblanc said a boom shook his windows on the other side of the Mississippi River from the refinery. After that boom, he said, "it sounded like a blowtorch."

He walked up to the levee near his house to take photographs and videos. "I could feel the heat from the top of the levee," he said

"The big flame burned for about an hour," Leblanc said.

The blaze started in a natural gas line, affecting first one and then all of the facility's crude distillation towers -- which heat and break down raw oil into products -- according to people familiar with operations. As a result, other units such as the catalytic cracker and the chemical plant had to cease operations.

It wasn't immediately clear what caused the fire.

Industry consultant Genscape Inc. said in a report Wednesday that its monitors detected that all crude sections, as well as a catalytic reformer, at the plant were shut. The facility is along the Mississippi River about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans and accounts for about 15% of the refining capacity in Louisiana.

The WAFB television station's website showed images of the fire and said nearby residents reported their houses being rocked.

The complex's chemical plant was shut down, including its olefins unit -- which takes feedstocks such as naphtha, butane, propane and ethane from the oil refinery and converts them into ethylene and propylene that are used to make plastics. The facility can process more than 500,000 barrels of crude a day, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Exxon Mobil Baton Rouge tweeted that it has more than 300 emergency responders across its sites in Baton Rouge, and "our volunteer fire team members responded quickly and safely to control & extinguish the fire."

Exxon Mobil was working with the Fire Department's hazardous materials unit to monitor air quality in the area, company spokeswoman Megan Manchester told reporters shortly after dawn Wednesday. Results so far have been "below detectable limits," she said.

Exxon is conducting a big expansion of the plastic-ingredient capacity on the chemical side of the Baton Rouge complex that's scheduled to begin output next year.

U.S. refineries handled an average of about 16.5 million barrels a day of crude so far this year, Energy Information Administration data show.

Information for this article was contributed by Barbara Powell, Rachel Graham and Bill Lehane of Bloomberg News; and by staff members of The Associated Press.

Business on 02/13/2020

Print Headline: Blaze shuts down key Exxon oil refinery in Baton Rouge

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