As many as 1,800 refinery workers from far corners of the country are converging in Billings until mid-June, doing round-the-clock work on the Phillips 66 refinery during its largest-ever planned maintenance period.
The refinery, which normally employs about 300 full-time workers, is in the midst of what’s known as a turnaround, a maintenance event that refineries undergo every five years. It involves shutting everything down, bringing in a host of outside help and working 24 hours a day to complete all the maintenance the refinery needs in order to go the next five years.
This year’s turnaround is the biggest one yet for the refinery, which has been running since 1949.
“This is the largest turnaround we’ve ever done in terms of dollars, scope and duration,” refinery spokesman Ryan Wegner said.
While turnarounds in the past have typically gone 40-50 days or so, this one is scheduled to last 56 days. That extra time is needed, Wegner said, is because the turnaround period will also be used to get a recent $300 million upgrade project—called the Vacuum Improvements Project—online.
That project, which has been the works for the past couple of years, will allow the refinery to increase the proportion of lower-cost crude oil in its supply mix.
Turnaround periods are typically a boon for the hospitality industry in Billings, with contractors from Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana and other states filling hotel beds, campgrounds spaces and rental units.
“It has a huge impact on the hospitality industry,” said Bruce MacIntyre, senior public policy adviser at the Billings Chamber of Commerce. He added that the dollars flowing into the community from this type of event turn over more than twice before they leave.
Jess Horn, a welder from Oklahoma, and his girlfriend, Kelsey Plank, who works watching for fires and safety hazards, met up with their friend Tom Angelton, a welder from Kansas, whom Horn has known from years of crossing paths on refining jobs.
Horn and Angleton have both been crisscrossing the country for more than a decade each, traveling from refinery to refinery, mainly during the spring and fall when most of the turnarounds happen.
“The coolest thing about being on the road is meeting new people,” Horn said.
While the turnaround itself doesn’t offer much time to see the sights, Plank said she and Horn are taking advantage of the time before and after to do some touring. They stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield on the way into town and plan on swinging through Yellowstone National Park on their way out.
This turnaround is the first visit to Billings for Horn and Plank, but Angleton said he’s been here a multiple times before. In fact, of all the places he’s been, he said Billings tops his list.
“I’d rather work here than about anywhere else,” Angleton said, explaining that the people around here just seem more laid back than in other places.
“Everybody’s just as big of a drunk as I am,” he added with a laugh, jumping into a story about dancing on the bar at the 212 Bar and Grill in Joliet (with the bartender’s blessing), and accidentally kicking a beer out of a guy’s hand. Rather than starting a fight, the guy bought him a beer.
The size of Billings, and the capacity of the hospitality industry, too, probably has something to do with the comfort in which 1,800 visitors can feel absorbed and welcomed by the community. Wegner, the spokesman for the refinery, said Billings has plenty of hotel rooms to absorb the workers that come into town.
Statistics from the Billings Chamber of Commerce show that the city has nearly 5,000 hotel rooms to offer. During turnaround periods, the city historically has shown a substantial bump in occupancy rates—15 percent or more—but still not enough to run of rooms.
The idea of bringing another 1,800 bodies into downtown Billings also creates some obvious concerns about the traffic impacts. But MacIntyre, who works out of the Chamber of Commerce building on South 27th Street, said that despite working close to the refinery during the turnaround, he hasn’t noticed any traffic problems.
“If somebody had a hard time making a left turn, we’d hear about it,” he said.
MacIntyre is also a member of the refinery’s Citizens Advisory Council, a body made up of about 18 community members and four company representatives, which acts as a conduit between the refinery and the Billings community.
As a member of the advisory council, MacIntyre got an early heads-up about the coming work at the refinery during the council’s monthly meetings, and he praised the refinery for the planning it did to lessen the impact on the community, such as staging pick-up points for workers away from the refinery itself.
Many people in Billings are familiar with the idea of working out in the oilfields as a ticket to opportunity, but the more nomadic, urban-centric work of refinery turnarounds might be less familiar.
At least that was the case for Plank. Growing up in Oklahoma, she said, she’d always heard about people working on oil rigs, but didn’t know about refinery turnarounds until she met Horn about a year and a half ago.
Even though she graduated from college with a degree in psychology last spring, she found she could make better money traveling on the road with Horn doing fire watch work—far down on the totem pole as far as turnaround work goes—than should could working as a counselor with her degree.
And Horn and Angelton, as welders, are making four or five times as much welding as she could make as a counselor, she said.
A bit later on Friday evening, after their reunion had migrated from the Vegas Hotel over to Bullwhackers to shoot some pool, Plank said she and Horn eventually plan to step back from the traveling life and stay put in Oklahoma, maybe with a house paid off, and she could return to counseling.
But for now, she said, opportunity and the open road beckon.
Stan Parker is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Billings.