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Bankrupt Philly refinery has a new bidder in former chief with big plans to revive fuel complex

The plans to revive the complex that shut down after a June 21 fire and explosion include "green" energy options -- solar, biodiesel and renewable gas -- as well as a conventional oil refinery.

A shift change at Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, when the company announced it was laying off most of its workers at the refinery complex following a June explosion and fire that closed the plant.
A shift change at Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, when the company announced it was laying off most of its workers at the refinery complex following a June explosion and fire that closed the plant.Read more / File Photograph

Philip Rinaldi, the retired chief executive of Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES), on Wednesday announced he is formally bidding to buy and restart the bankrupt South Philadelphia refinery complex that abruptly shut down in June after a fire and explosion.

Rinaldi, 73, who headed the company that revived the 1,300-acre complex in 2012 when previous owner Sunoco exited refining, has expressed an interest in rescuing the plant that was his personal project until he retired in 2017. With extensive connections to the business and political leaders, to energy-industry executives, and to the refinery’s labor union, Rinaldi becomes the front-runner to assume ownership of the largest refinery on the East Coast.

“My focus and drive in pursuing this acquisition is to revitalize, modernize, and develop the site and the strategic refinery business that has existed there for decades to their full potential,” Rinaldi said in a statement. “We can reinvigorate the site as an economic juggernaut that generates billions of dollars of revenue and provides thousands of high-paying jobs for our skilled professional and labor workforce.”

Rinaldi’s new company, Philadelphia Energy Industries (PEI), would restart the refinery as a conventional fuel-manufacturing facility. But it has also entered into a cooperation agreement with RNG Energy Solutions, a company that announced plans last year to build a $120 million digester that can convert more than 1,100 tons of food waste a day into renewable methane gas.

In addition to producing renewable natural gas from food scraps, RNG Energy intends to develop a 100 million gallons-per-year renewable diesel fuel project on the Girard Point side of the refinery that would cost $600 million, said James Potter, president of RNG Energy. It also wants to install about 10 megawatts of solar cells on various vacant spots within the refinery, he said.

“If we’re selected to proceed, we’d like to maximize the opportunities on the site,” said Potter.

Rinaldi’s partnership with a renewable-fuel manufacturer is unlikely to assuage local environmentalists and community groups, who had dubbed the self-proclaimed industrialist as “Fossil Phil” when he led a Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce effort to transform Philadelphia into an “energy hub.” They say the refinery is a major nuisance and its danger to the city’s health was underscored by the June 21 explosion.

“I believe that Mr. Rinaldi has done enough harm to the health and welfare of Philadelphians, including refinery workers,” said Joseph Minott, executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council. “I am not convinced that Mr. Rinaldi has a true understanding of what green energy is.”

Rinaldi’s statement included no mention of who might finance the acquisition, but owning and operating a refinery is not for the faint of heart, nor for those without resources. Refining oil can be lucrative when fuel prices are high, but it is a cyclical industry where profit margins can evaporate for long stretches, while the plant still requires millions of dollars for maintenance.

The closure of the refinery — which employed 1,100 people but was also the city’s single-largest source of air pollution — had inspired a flurry of speculation among various interest groups over reviving the property as a refinery or reimagining the 150-year-old manufacturing site in a new clean-energy role. The cause of the explosion and fire is still under investigation by local and federal authorities.

“I’ve been saying all along it’s a viable business,” said Ryan O’Callaghan, who is stepping down as president of the United Steelworkers Local 10-1 at the refinery after he got laid off on Sunday.

“We’re pleased that Phil has an interest, and we’re pleased that it will be a mix of the conventional refining business plus the newer greener aspects," said O’Callaghan. “So it hits all the points, and we can get back to work and prevent any other people in the region from losing their jobs.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia refinery was close to the financial brink before the June 21 fire and explosion

Rinaldi earlier this week declined to comment on the bid, saying he was constrained by a nondisclosure agreement with the current owners. He had made no secret of his interest in reviving the plant, and The Inquirer previously reported he began organizing a rescue effort just days after the June 21 fire.

PES is expected to ask the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware to approve a process to seek offers for the refinery, which laid off most of its workforce after Sunday and now is operating the plant with a “caretaker” staff that includes 83 union members. The court would need to approve any sale as part of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Several other companies have shown interest in the shuttered refinery, including SG Preston Co., a Philadelphia biofuels producer that last week said it was interested in acquiring the refinery and converting the equipment to manufacture renewable diesel and jet fuels from fats and oils.

Rinaldi and other former refinery executives still hold a 2.7% share of Philadelphia Energy Solutions after it emerged from bankruptcy a year ago, only to sink again under the weight of a heavy debt load and a reliance on an expensive grade of low-sulfur crude oil. When the June fire forced the refinery to close, the owners quickly declared bankruptcy again.

PES now is owned primarily by its former creditors. Credit Suisse Asset Management holds 29.4% of the shares and Bardin Hill Investment Partners, formerly known as Halcyon Capital Management, owns 26.7%, according to the bankruptcy filing.

» READ MORE: Explosion-damaged South Philadelphia refinery files for bankruptcy, again

The Carlyle Group, a private equity giant that led the effort to revive the refinery in 2012, retains a 15% share. Energy Transfer Partners LP, Sunoco’s parent, has a 7.4% share. Activist investor Daniel S. Loeb’s Third Point Loan LLC holds a 7.3% share of the company.

When Rinaldi assumed the helm at PES in 2012, he expressed a vision for transforming the refinery complex into a diverse collection of energy-related businesses fueled partly by the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom, including power generation, fertilizer production, and chemical manufacturing. But much of that plan relied upon natural gas pipeline capacity to the refinery, which the energy hub campaign was unable to achieve.

The company’s biggest achievement was to build a massive rail yard where North American crude oil, transported by train, could be rapidly unloaded. The access to discounted crude oil from the Dakotas turned out to be a short-lived boost to the refinery’s fortunes, until the oil became too expensive to transport by rail.

Rinaldi’s statement Wednesday contained echoes of his 2012 plan, including aspirations for additional development opportunities for the site.

» READ MORE: Political, business and labor leaders came together in 2012 to engineer the refinery rescue

“I understand that the energy industry is undergoing an evolution, which is why a major part of my focus is on implementing a holistic, sustainable, and sensitive approach to operations on the site with the goal of making the facility the industrial pride of Philadelphia,” Rinaldi said in the statement.