Total’s La Mède Conversion: The Unabridged Version

An unabridged version of Ron Kotrba's earlier article about supermajor oil company Total S.A. converting its 150,000-barrel-per-day La Mède oil refinery to produce renewable diesel, a nervous-making project for the French biodiesel sector.
By Ron Kotrba | January 13, 2016

Last spring one of the world’s largest oil companies, Total S.A., based in Paris with operations in 130 countries, announced plans to transform its oil refinery in La Mède, France, to manufacture 500,000 tons (approximately 170 MMgy) of hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO), also known as renewable diesel.

The La Mède oil refinery is in the south of France near Marseilles. The first unit was built in 1935, according to Philippe Billant, project director for Total and head of the La Mède transformation. The cracking unit—the main conversion component at the refinery—was installed in 1953. Capacity at La Mède has increased over time and, today, crude oil processing stands at roughly 150,000 barrels per day (nearly 2.3 billion gallons per year). For years, the asset has been losing money for Total. “The refining environment in Europe is tough and competitive,” Billant says. “We have to see the La Mède project in that context.”

European demand for petroleum products has declined 15 percent since 2008, a trend that the company says stems from Europe’s pursuit of energy efficiency and improved vehicle fuel economy resulting from the EU’s commitment to reduce its carbon footprint. “The European market is steadily contracting,” the company states, “a situation aggravated by the shale oil and gas revolution in the United States, which gives the U.S. refining industry an advantage, and competition from refineries in Asia and the Middle East. These two trends shut European refineries out of some of their domestic and export markets and have exacerbated excess refining capacity in Europe.” 

In April 2015, when Total announced plans to invest in the two of its five French refineries losing money—Donges and La Mède—Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total, said, “There are three possible responses to the crisis in the European refining industry. The first is to throw in the towel. The second is to do nothing and perish. The third is to innovate and adapt to meet shifting demand trends. The central focus of Total’s plan for our French refining business is to realign our operations and products to changing markets. The plan that we are presenting today offers sustainable solutions for the Donges and La Mède refineries. It gives both facilities a future and strengthens Total’s refining base in France.”

 For La Mède specifically, Billant says the location on France’s Mediterranean Coast is a highly competitive area. “Forty to 50 percent of France’s oil refining capacity is positioned in that very small area,” he says. “There’s excess capacity in the region compared to the demand for gasoline and heavy oils.” Billant says La Mède has lower competitive factors than the average refinery in Europe. “For instance,” he explains, “it has a low complexity factor due to the relatively low cracker capacity vs. the crude distiller. And despite investments over the years, the refinery has relative low-energy efficiency and high costs.”

For these reasons, Total has decided to end crude oil processing at La Mède by the end of 2016 and begin a new chapter in the site’s long history. “The status quo at La Mède is just not possible for us,” Billant says, “so we had to do something to make the operation profitable. Closing the complex was just not possible. In our new endeavor we had to find maximum use for the assets at La Mède, including our highly skilled personnel. This is what led to the project.”

The transformation of the La Mède oil refinery to manufacture HVO is a first for France, but not for Europe or the rest of the world. While La Mède is the second such project of its impressive kind globally, the Italian oil company Eni S.p.A. blazed this trail in 2012 when it announced plans to convert its Porto Marghera refinery in Venice to produce 300,000 tons of renewable diesel using the trademarked Ecofining process, developed jointly between Eni and Honeywell’s UOP. With an investment of 100 million euros ($109.2 million), Eni identified the opportunity to reuse the catalytic hydrodesulfurization section in the Venice refinery to incorporate its Ecofining technology to produce HVO. The company says while palm oil is its initial feedstock, the biorefinery will eventually incorporate animal fats, used cooking oil, algae oil and lipids. Eni’s “Green Refinery” began operations in 2014 and the company says commissioning will continue through 2015.

While Eni invested 100 million euros and implemented its own Ecofining process developed jointly with UOP, Total is investing 200 million euros and will be employing French company Axens’ Vegan process. Axens is a subsidiary of IFP Group Technologies. Axens made a name for itself in the biodiesel space in the mid-2000s when it pioneered the solid catalyst Esterfip-H process for fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) manufacturing. Its first commercial installation of the Esterfip-H process was, coincidentally, also in the south of France, in Sète, for Diester Industrie. Last year, Diester Industrie and Saipol, a subsidiary of the Avril Group, merged. Just recently, in October, Saipol announced its investment of 28.5 million euros in additional biodiesel manufacturing capacity in Sète, adding 100,000 tons (approximately 30 MMgy) to its already existing 180,000-ton facility, and a new biomass boiler to burn sunflower hulls from its hulling complex nearly 300 miles west of Sète. The additional biodiesel capacity in Sète is based on the Lurgi process, says Tom Doron, public relations manager for the Avril Group.

Interestingly, as Total points to saturation of crude oil refining in the south of France, Saipol is concerned with Total’s plans to convert the La Mède refinery to produce HVO about 100 miles away. Yves Delaine, deputy CEO of the Avril Group and chairman of Saipol, says, “Refocusing and up-scaling the activities of this site will allow us to prepare for a future in which we believe, despite a growing number of competitors in the Mediterranean region who are making use of external agricultural resources. This constitutes a real threat, which is becoming a concern to both our site and farmers in the region.”

Kristell Guizouarn, chair of the French biodiesel board Esterifrance, says, “A production unit such as Total’s, increasing by 25 percent the national production, should mechanically cut the national production of rapeseed by a quarter of its present surface. Not mentioning the social and economic impact, as Total’s project will undoubtedly threaten the existing plants and the 20,000 jobs the farming and industrial biofuel sector amounts to in France.” She adds that the national federation of oilseeds has expressed “deep concerns” as the policy switch to boost mandatory off-road biodiesel blending to 7.7 percent in 2016 is at risk of being postponed. “In addition to the future competition from the Total oil refinery that should mainly use imported palm oil as feedstock rather than using domestic oilseeds,” Guizouarn says, “the French biodiesel industry feels that France’s and Europe’s support to local agricultural and industrial sectors is at risk.”

Project, Market Particulars
Announced in April 2015, the first phase of Total’s La Mède biorefinery conversion project is, as Billant puts it, “the informing and social process, during which we explain the project,” he says. “We’re now done with that phase and we’ve moved into the development and implementation phase. We will continue to operate La Mède as-is until the end of 2016. In the meantime, we will conduct detailed engineering studies so we’ll be ready to start construction in early 2017.” Billant says Total anticipates construction will take six months and plans to commission the plant mid-2017.

Some of the 200 million euros will be spent on the retrofit of the hydrotreater. “We have to adapt the unit to process the renewable feedstock,” Billant says. The process of hydrogenating the oil to remove the oxygen generates a lot of heat. “Much more than when you process fossil oil,” Billant says. “So we have to adapt the reactor to manage that—adapt the internals of the engaging unit.” The conversion project also involves building a new pretreatment unit, which treats the oil and removes any harmful metals and other contaminants before the material is fed into the catalyzed hydrotreater. “We also have to adapt the storage and logistics facilities,” Billant says. In addition to the costs associated with adapting the existing oil refinery to produce HVO, Total is investing in building a unit to produce AdBlue, a urea-based compound used by diesel vehicles to treat NOx emissions in selective catalytic reduction (SCR) systems, and an 8-MW solar farm to be installed by Total affiliate SunPower, which will provide 50 percent of the site’s power needs.

Billant further explains other project details of the conversion. “In this project, we will stop the crude distiller and conversion unit,” he says. “We will keep the gasoil hydrotreater and reformer as well. That will produce the hydrogen needed for HVO production. We will also keep the naptha hydrotreater. And we will keep using most of, but not all, the existing storage. We obviously need some capacity to maintain operations.”  

Axens did not respond to requests to talk about this project and the Vegan process. Billant says Axens’ technology was chosen vs. other offerings in the market because Total’s assessment revealed that it was “best able to meet our expectations for the project.”

In an Oct. 21 press release from Axens touting Total’s selection of its Vegan process—six months after Total announced the news—Axens stated, “This technology was originally developed by IFP Energies nouvelles in the mid-2000s based upon an extensive research and development program. Vegan technology fundamentally consists [of] hydroprocessing any kind/mixture of renewable lipids into ultra-clean iso-paraffins. The resulting high-quality mixture of bio-paraffins exhibits a high cetane number, tunable cold-flow properties, contains virtually no sulfur or aromatic compounds and is easily blended into regular diesel or jet fuel. Vegan is based upon Axens’ large experience in conventional hydroprocessing technologies and catalysts with more than 200 units licensed in the world totaling around 10 million bbl/day capacity as well as a strong knowledge of lipidic feedstock processing. Axens has pioneered the first-generation biodiesel market in the ’90s, through Esterfip technologies, based on [the] transesterification process.”

Billant says the feedstock objective for La Mède is to maximize processing of used cooking oil. “We will look for that within France and the EU,” he says. “But we will definitely look for it within France.” Billant adds that if it makes economic sense, La Mède will also consider importing feedstock from outside the EU.

While the main product manufactured at La Mède will be HVO for on-road use, secondary products will include propane and bionaptha. France will be the target market for its HVO production, in the context of the nation’s growing demand for biodiesel and HVO, Billant says. Other EU nations are prospective markets as well. “In 2020, European demand [of HVO and similar advanced renewables] will increase to 10 percent of transportation fuels,” he says.

Billant says HVO makes more sense than biodiesel in the context of a rising French and EU demand for biofuels since fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) blending has limitations in the EU at 7 percent, although in early 2015 France’s energy ministry upped the allowable concentration of FAME in diesel fuel to 8 percent. “We are in the context where we can set a 10 percent renewable goal in transportation fuel in 2020,” Billant says. “With the limitations of esters, biodiesel is not necessarily the only solution, as such, to meet that demand. That’s where HVO comes into the game. It’s a product that offers a solution to meet the growing demand,” he says, adding that HVO can be blended at any concentration in the EU. In addition, it puts good use to the assets already installed at La Mède. “It requires hydrogen to strip out the oxygen,” he says. “It sits very well with the existing unit in the La Mède refinery. We will use the available hydrogen and hydrotreater.” 

Furthermore, Total notes that France’s Energy Transition Act sets a target of 15 percent biofuels in 2030, adding that Europe and France will need additional biofuel production to meet this goal. “France currently imports biodiesel (462,000 tons in 2013 and 576,000 tons in 2014), and more than 20 percent of the biodiesel produced domestically is made from non-French crops (2013 figures),” the company states.

When asked what the most challenging aspect of this monumental project is, Billant asked, “The most challenging, or exciting? We’re moving from a situation where this site was losing money, so we’re doing this conversion to make it profitable. The challenge starts there. Let’s make it profitable.” What has been key is communication. “It’s a transformation project,” Billant says. “The good news is that we have been able to communicate and explain what will happen, and we did so two years in advance.”

Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
[email protected]

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