Grangemouth at 100 (part two)

Grangemouth Refinery near Falkirk in Scotland began operating in 1924 and celebrates its centenary this year. We look back at its history in this year’s bps news with each edition covering 25 years. In this edition, we go back to the early 1950s and the post-war expansion of the refinery and end with the late Queen switching on the flow of oil from the Forties field in November 1975.

Celebrating Grangemouth’s centenary is tinged with sadness as the refinery’s current owner, Petroineos, a joint venture between the Chinese state-owned oil firm and Ineos owned by Sir James Ratcliffe, has announced the refinery is to cease operations as soon as 2025. The aim is to transform Grangemouth into a pure fuel import and export terminal. It is not yet known what impact closing one of the UK’s six remaining large oil refineries will have on fuel supplies. Hopefully, we’ll learn more as the year develops.

Our thanks go to those people who kindly responded to our request for memories of working at Grangemouth Refinery – see the ‘I was there . . .’ pull outs. There’s plenty of room for more memories in the August and November newsletters, so please do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you. Please include the dates you worked at BP Grangemouth and your job role. Our contact details are on page 2 of bps news.

In the February 2024 bps news, we concluded part one of Grangemouth at 100 with the recommissioning of the refinery after the war in 1946 and the commencement of work on the expansion of the refinery in 1949. But why was the expansion necessary? With the end of the war in 1945 oil began pouring out of Anglo-Iranian’s fields in Iran, Kuwait and Iraq. Plus there was continued small-scale production from Britain’s onshore fields at Eakring, Hardstoft and Formby.

The result was that Anglo-Iranian had plenty of crude with which to meet a growing demand for oil and over the next five years its marketers made great progress in expanding its sales outlets. In Britain, where the company sold its refined products through Shell-Mex and BP, many of the wartime controls on the oil industry were kept in force by Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government. The Petroleum Board was not dissolved until 1948 and petrol rationing continued until 1950. Nevertheless, sales increased, especially of fuel oil as the chronic shortage of coal encouraged consumers to switch to oil. Consequently, the Llandarcy and Grangemouth refineries were expanded and construction of a new refinery on the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary began in 1950.

The expansion of the Grangemouth Refinery incorporated No. 1 Crude and No. 1 Vacuum Distillation Units and the Fluid Catalytic Cracker, together with various treatment units, and was completed in 1954. In the same year, the name of the refinery itself was changed to BP Refinery (Grangemouth) Limited.

A picture plan of Grangemouth Refinery taken from a Scottish Oils pamphlet dated September 1950 setting out the expansion of the refinery.

Oil tankers were growing to a size of vessel which could not safely negotiate the Forth as far inland as Grangemouth. Fortunately, BP was able to acquire and develop the petroleum storage installation which had been built in wartime at Finnart on Loch Long where some of the tanks had brick walls as additional protection against shrapnel! The Loch Long anchorage was capable of accepting the biggest oil tankers in the world. There was deep water there close to the shore and in all the approaches from the Irish Sea and the Atlantic. A 57-mile buried pipeline was laid across Scotland between Finnart and Grangemouth and the Finnart Ocean Terminal went into operation in 1951.

The word ‘refining’ generally means ‘freeing from impurities’ but this is only partly true of oil. Crude oil is a mixture of thousands of hydrocarbons, substances with different boiling points and different molecular structures. Refining involves the breaking up of the crude oil into its particular fractions to obtain a number of valuable gases, liquids and solids. As the crude oil came into the Grangemouth Refinery from the Finnart pipeline, it went to the tank farm for storage. The first process was then carried out in one of the refinery’s crude oil distillation units. It was here that the different basic fractions were separated by continuous distillation.

The crude oil was first heated and as the temperature increased it vaporised all of the volatile products. The vapours passed up the distillation column and the liquids passed downwards. The separate fractions were then taken off at different levels and passed on to other units for treatment. All the movements were made through pipelines which accounts for the miles of pipeline and the large number of pumps employed at the refinery. Among the products requiring treatment were gas, kerosene, propane and butane, motor spirit, naphtha, light gas oil and heavy gas oil.

Adjacent to the Grangemouth Refinery was the site of a new company, British Hydrocarbon Chemicals Limited, a joint venture by BP and the Distillers Company. (The association ended in 1967 when BP purchased most of the Distillers Company’s petroleum chemical interests.) The new company established a petrochemical plant to utilise available feedstock from the refinery byproduct streams to make ethyl and isopropyl alcohols. The plant was commissioned in 1951.

Further expansion was required to ensure that the combined demand of refinery and chemicals production for these utilities was met. This entailed building an extension to the Power Station containing boilers 9 – 13 and associated electrical power turbines. No. 2 Crude Distillation Unit was built and commissioned in 1959. In addition, a number of pressurised storage spheres were installed to contain liquid propane and butane. These products were sent to Calor Gas. Modification of No. 1 Crude Distillation Unit in 1964 and an increase in the capacity of the Finnart system and pipeline resulted in Grangemouth’s refining capacity rising to 4.5 million tons a year by 1964.

By 1960 the chemical company was manufacturing a whole range of petrochemicals and had opened its first polyethylene plant at Grangemouth. Meanwhile research by BP France had discovered the possibilities of converting oil into proteins to help feed the world’s growing population. By 1968 BP was ready to construct a 4,000 tons a year plant at Grangemouth and another plant at Lavera in France to make proteins to replace fishmeal in animal feed. In 1970 BP Proteins was set up to take the process into commercial production.

By 1970 continental Europe accounted for nearly half of BP’s sales of refined oil products, compared to little more than a quarter in 1954. At the same time, BP’s European refining capacity grew apace. By 1970 more than two-thirds of BP’s refining capacity was carried out in the UK and in mainland Europe. The company had come a long way since 1950, when the Abadan refinery accounted for three-quarters of BP’s refining throughput.

A further expansion of Grangemouth’s refining capacity to 9 million tons a year took place in 1970 with the construction and commissioning of No. 3 Crude Distillation Unit. This expansion incorporated extensive distillate hydrotreating. To support the increased throughput, an expansion of the Finnart facilities was necessary. An additional 20” pipeline was laid between Finnart and Kinneil where two new crude oil tanks to the east of the River Avon were erected to feed the refinery.

The complexity of the refinery was greatly increased during 1971 to 1973 with the construction and commissioning of the Xylenes plant and the hydrocracker complex. These latter units greatly increased the refinery’s capacity for conversion of residual products to high value distillate products including, for the first time, pure chemicals in the form of ortho- and para-xylenes. To support the increased complexity and the increased BP Chemicals demand, further extensive increases in the steam and power generation facilities were made over this period by building boilers 14 and 15 with their associated turbines.

On 3 November 1975 the late Queen Elizabeth II visited Grangemouth. This was the day that Her Majesty pushed the button to start the flow of oil from the Forties field to Grangemouth. The photo captures her and her husband, the late Prince Phillip, being greeted by an exuberant, flag-waving crowd.

In October 1970 it was reported that BP’s ‘Sea Quest’ had found oil, 110 miles north-east of Aberdeen. On 3 November 1975, the late Queen Elizabeth II operated a switch in the BP Dyce control room to start oil flowing through the 130 mile pipeline to Grangemouth. Discovery and development of the Forties field culminated in the commissioning of the crude oil stabilisation and gas recovery plant at Kinneil in 1975. This plant is fed directly from the offshore platforms. Stabilised crude from the plant is routed to the refinery for processing with the balance passing to crude tankage at Dalmeny (near South Queensferry) for re-export via Hound Point terminal situated in the River Forth. The Dalmeny asset was created by hollowing a former shale bing ensuring that none of the tankage was visible from ground level.

When writing this history of Grangemouth Refinery, your editor has drawn on an article written by Richard Gordon entitled ‘The centenary of Grangemouth oil industry’ and on a pamphlet entitled ‘BP in Scotland’ kindly provided by Ian Woods, bp archive manager who also provided the photos. Richard Gordon lives just a few miles from the refinery and worked there from 1979 to 2002 for BP. His article was written for the Falkirk Local History Society for publication in their own annual newsletter ‘Calatria’.

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