Ah, December. As much as our personal activities go into high gear from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, it seems that work activity slacks off a bit at the end of the year. But while many people think December is full of “ho, ho, ho”, for petroleum refineries it is all “go, go, go.”

You can’t plan a meeting for December. Who would show up? Many colleagues are taking vacation days and those that are in the office are often distracted by the baked goods and holiday baskets in the break room. We get a good whiff of a peppermint latte and our minds wander off for a few moments to a Winter Wonderland. It can be hard to focus.

Except for petroleum refineries. They don’t take a breather in December, in fact, they run close to flat out in the last month of the year. Although we tend to think of the summer months, aka “peak gasoline season”, as the time when refineries are maximizing production they typically run flat out in December, too. The chart below shows the jump in U.S. refinery utilization that occurred in December 2014 and the EIA data for the past four years indicate that the peak utilization in December for the U.S. has averaged 99.7 percent of the summer’s peak utilization (on a weekly basis). Much like the showing of Lifetime holiday movies, U.S. refineries actually pick up the pace in December.

But even when a petroleum refinery isn’t operating flat out, it’s still not taking a break. Petroleum refineries operate round the clock seven days per week and 365 days per year. It’s just that U.S. refineries operate at higher than average rates all through the holidays.

One reason for the higher operating rates in December is that fuels consumption is almost as high as it is in the summer months. All of those holiday shopping excursions, UPS deliveries, jet-fueled long distance vacations, and trips to Grandma’s house add up to a lot of fuel consumption.

In addition to keeping up with December’s higher fuels consumption, petroleum refineries are also maximizing production in December so that inventories of petroleum products can be increased in anticipation of the maintenance shutdowns that will commence in January. Some of the 132 U.S. refineries will be shut down for four to eight weeks to conduct inspections, make repairs, and install new equipment and the inventories built up in December will keep consumers supplied through the spring shutdowns.

So when you’re traveling to friends and family this holiday season, or waiting for the last-minute gifts you ordered online to arrive at your door, spare a thought for the refineries – and the people that operate them – that make it all happen.

Jeff Hazle

Posted by Jeff Hazle

Jeff Hazle is the former Senior Director of Refining Technology for AFPM. To learn more about AFPM, visit AFPM.org.