Valero Energy turns to satellite communications

Von Thomas Hoffman

The oil and gas companies that operate refineries around the Gulf of Mexico are among the firms hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. Many of them suffered extensive equipment damage and telecommunications disruptions that made it extremely difficult for site operators and other managers to communicate.

But at least one company affected by the deadly storm -- San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp. -- has been able to work through many of those issues, in part, by making use of satellite communications, said Hal Zesch, senior vice president and CIO.

"Even before we looked at our physical facilities, we wanted to see what the impact of the storm was on our employees," said Zesch. To do that, Valero set up a 24-hour call center in San Antonio for its 1,000 workers in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi to find out how they were faring, where they were located and what they needed, he said.

Valero also posted the call center phone numbers on its company Web site,, and sent public service announcements to radio and television stations in the affected areas.

Valero is now using about 20 satellite phones and about 40 cell/radio phones to communicate between its San Antonio refinery and its St. Charles and Krotz Springs refineries in southern Louisiana. Both Louisiana refineries were directly affected by Katrina, said Rick Davis, a senior IT manager who coordinated all of Valero"s posthurricane information services activities. Over Labor Day weekend, the Krotz Springs refinery resumed normal operations and is now operating at full capacity. The St. Charles facility regained all its utilities on Tuesday, and is in the process of bringing some of its units back online. It is almost fully operational, said Zesch.

Valero now has 10 information services workers in the Gulf area working to restore voice and data communications and other services there. Four traveled from San Antonio, while the rest were already stationed in southern Louisiana.

In addition, Valero set up connections in San Antonio to an IP phone switch at the St. Charles facility last weekend to support voice communications. Satellite communications were installed this week that also enabled Valero to re-establish communications with 14 retail stations located between New Orleans and Lafayette, as well as with three in the Shreveport area, said Davis. Valero stores, operating on backup generators, provided ice, fuel and supplies to the local community.

The satellite communications strategy has been extremely useful, said Davis. Valero"s St. Charles refinery didn"t have its land lines restored until this morning -- 10 days after the deadly hurricane hit. And Davis said he is hopeful that Valero"s primary telecommunications provider would be able to restore service to the Krotz Springs refinery sometime this afternoon.