The Bottom Line for Total’s Cracker Bottoms


A new hydrocracker at Totals Gonfreville, France, oil refinery has potential to produce 500,000 metric tons per year of base oil feedstock beginning next month. It remains to be seen, however, whether that leads to a significant increase in the amount of base oil actually produced in the regions tightened market.

The French energy giant announced July 31 that it has begun starting up the first units associated with a distillate hydrocracker and that all units should be commissioned and producing at full capacity by the end of September. The 550 million project was undertaken primarily to increase output of sulfur-free diesel fuel and kerosene, but will also yielda substantial volumeof hydrocracker bottoms. The latter can be used as base oil feedstock or be cracked further to make automotive fuel.

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Production of hydrocracker bottoms is part of a base oil expansion plan that Total is considering. Installation of a catalytic dewaxing unit would allow it to make 500,000 tons per year of Group III base oils. The company has repeatedly postponed a final decision on the dewaxing unit, though.

Management at the refinery is not ready yet to move on that investment, Total spokeswoman Betille Aron told Lube Report yesterday. A decision will not be made until maybe next year.

Aron added that two factors have contributed to the delay: scarce availability of human resources for refining capital projects; and unresolved issues with union employees at Gonfreville, who went on strike last year. Officials said previously that Total was also weighing whether it would be better off making its own Group III base oil or buying it from plants scheduled to be built in the Middle East.

The Gonfreville refinery already has a base oil plant with capacity to make 550,000 tons per year – 40,000 tons of Group III oils, the rest Group I. Total said it is running at capacity, so the new hydrocracker bottoms will not affect the volume of base oil produced on site. The hydrocracker will give the refinery more flexibility to use high-sulfur crudes, which have become significantly less expensive than waxy, lower-sulfur crudes.

Aron said the decision about what to do with the hydrocracker bottoms will be an ongoing one, made according to the economics of selling them or turning them into fuel. One industry observer speculated, though, that other Western European refiners do not have much spare Group III capacity to demand hydrocracker bottoms feedstock.

The question is, who would use it, said R. David Whitby, chief executive of Pathmaster Marketing Ltd., in Woking, U.K. Its possible that some companies in Central Europe would want some of it if they invest in projects to make Group II or Group III base oils. But as things stand now, I dont see it having much of an impact. It might add 10,000, 20,000, maybe 30,000 tons per year [to the regions base oil sup

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