The next seven days could determine the fate of the bankrupt Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery complex, which shut down following a catastrophic June 21 fire and explosion.

Final bids from potential buyers of the refinery’s assets are due at noon on Friday. The bids will trigger a rapid series of events that could conclude a week later, on Jan. 17, with an auction conducted at a law office in New York.

The 1,300-acre property, which is larger than all of Center City, could be sold to one buyer, or broken up into pieces and sold to several buyers. The site has been used for petroleum refining for more than 150 years. But the refinery’s shutdown, and its continued struggles with financial viability as a conventional oil processing plant, have also raised hopes among urban planners, environmentalists, and the refinery’s neighbors that a new, cleaner use can be found for a large property at the city’s southern gateway.

“Thinking long-term, it’s an extraordinary opportunity,” said Harris M. Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. He said the site could be used for “just about anything,” though much depends upon remediation of more than a century of soil contamination.

Still, because of the property’s installed infrastructure — one of two refineries in the complex was undamaged by the fire — and its transportation links to rail, road, water, and pipelines, many observers believe that the logical buyer would continue to use some of the land for energy production or fuel storage.

Even if a new owner continues refining oil on the site, advocates for a clean-energy future view the bankruptcy process as part of a longer, inevitable transition as the nation shifts from fossil fuels.

“Frankly, I will say it, there are plans where it could make a lot of sense, for all concerned, to restore some of the refining activities at some portion of the site,” said Mark Alan Hughes, founding faculty director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “But it’s also got to do a bunch of other stuff where we all realize where that site has to be 20 years from now.”

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Kevin Gross in Wilmington in November approved bidding procedures for the PES property, which declared bankruptcy in July. The procedures “are designed to promote participation and active bidding and ensure that the highest or otherwise best value is generated for the interests or the assets,” PES said in a court filing.

Recognizing the public stake in the court’s outcome, Gross has granted the city’s request to be consulted during the bidding and auction process.

Fifteen potential bidders last year submitted written indications of interest in PES, the East Coast’s largest refinery. But fewer parties are expected to actually submit formal bids. The parties may be interested in only the refinery’s real estate and equipment. They may also bid on other assets, including tax refunds or the rights to collect proceeds from the refinery’s $1.25 billion in insurance policies.

PES could simply accept one proposal and call off the auction. If there are several qualified bidders, it could designate a preferred bidder as a “stalking horse,” which would require competitors to submit higher bids at the auction.

If the refinery’s lenders decide that the bids are unsatisfactory, they can acquire the assets themselves by bidding up to the $755 million in debt they hold, a strategy known as “credit bidding.”

In this June 21, 2019 file photo, flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke / AP
In this June 21, 2019 file photo, flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia.

Under confidentiality agreements, PES is required to provide any qualified bids by Sunday to other parties, such as the city representative. If it designates a stalking horse bidder, it is required to disclose that publicly no later than Monday.

The court has set a series of deadlines for parties to file objections to the plan and for creditors to vote on it, concluding with a confirmation hearing on Feb. 6.

Two potential bidders have publicly declared an interest in the property for energy production. A group led by former chief executive officer Philip Rinaldi is the only known bidder that proposes to restart the refinery, adding renewable natural gas production to the mix.

SG Preston, a Philadelphia biofuels marketer, also wants to convert the refinery into a producer of renewable diesel and jet fuel.

Randy Delbert LeTang, the company’s chief executive, declined to comment on the PES bidding process. But the company last week issued a statement that said it seeks to usher in a “new industrial revolution of sustainability” by converting old industrial sites, including oil refineries, “in partnership with leading environmental sustainability investment initiatives.”

At least three real estate developers that specialize in repurposing old industrial sites into cleaner uses, such as warehouse distribution centers, are rumored to be interested in the property, said Tom Kloza, the global head of energy analysis for the Oil Price Information Service.

If the site remains in energy production, much will depend upon whether a buyer can line up investors who believe there is still money to be made in oil refining.

The refinery was able to process 335,000 barrels per day — 30% of the refining capacity on the East Coast — but its closure has had a barely noticeable effect on retail markets for gasoline, diesel, or heating oil. Producers quickly shipped in fuel from other refineries in the region, overseas, or by pipeline from the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Some analysts expected the Jan. 1 imposition of new rules requiring low-sulfur fuel for ships could create a shortage of the type of low-sulfur diesel that PES used to produce, affecting home heating-oil markets. The maritime industry seems to have coped with the changes without disruptions, though profit margins for low-sulfur ship fuels have improved, said Kloza, the oil analyst.

Longer-term, the market for refined petroleum products is expected to decline as more motorists trade in fossil-fueled cars for electric vehicles, putting more pressure on financially challenged refiners like PES, stated a report from IHS Markit to Mayor Jim Kenney’s Refinery Group.

And as for the refinery’s 1,100 workers, some have found other work, including new positions at refineries in other states. But others are still unemployed and say that prospective employers are reluctant to hire them because they fear the workers will soon return to the refinery and its good-paying jobs when it reopens.

“We’re just waiting,” said Ryan O’Callaghan, a spokesman for United Steelworkers Local 10-1, one of the workers who is still jobless and is expecting the bankruptcy proceeding to arrive at some kind of closure.