During normal times, construction of petrochemical, refining and processing facilities proceeds toward completion safely and expeditiously. Since many of these facilities are in hurricane-prone regions of the U.S. Gulf Coast, fast-track progress toward completion makes perfect sense along with meeting market demands.

But these are not normal times.

Earlier this year, when it became obvious COVID-19 was becoming a global pandemic and oil prices were in a freefall, one of our hydrocarbon processing projects in the Houston area was shut down to protect the safety of construction crews and employees, and to ride out the economic turmoil.

Though the shutdown order was not a surprise, it put us in the unusual position of planning and engineering processes to effectively mothball and protect expensive materials and equipment already on-site at a half-built facility. When we walked away, no one knew how long the site would be in shutdown mode. Though it was not yet hurricane season along the Gulf Coast, we knew the danger was imminent and we could not just pull the plug and walk away with millions of dollars of materials and equipment left unprotected.

Everything from buildings and half-built support structures to scaffolding and even stacked equipment was at risk of blowing over if hit by 100-mile-per-hour-plus winds, heavy rains and the potential of erosion on site.

Had we had time to complete the project, all these structures would have been strong enough to resist the forces of these extreme storms. In an area like the Gulf Coast, design standards are such that all structures and facilities must be able to withstand all types of weather and environmental issues. But when the project is half-built, these protective supports and structures are typically the last systems bolted or welded in place.

Our plan for an orderly shutdown had to take into account that roads and drainage systems capable of conveying storm runoff from the site had not yet been completed. Throughout the Houston and Gulf Coast region, soil conditions are such that storm runoff carries an enormous amount of silt that can quickly plug drains and other infrastructure. Drainage management is a huge issue and properly designed storm infrastructure is a must.

Site security was also highly important. Fencing, cameras and manned security gates had to be installed. These and other physical security considerations required us to work closely with the client in formulating a plan and integrating with plant security.

Our client on this particular project had experience working with a third party for long-term storage of equipment and material on past projects. We were asked to serve as project manager for the shutdown and to work with a number of third parties on a plan to secure material and equipment. Our role as project manager was to bring our overall familiarity with engineering of systems and construction status to enable the specialists to meet requirements for locking down the site.

An early key step was to assess capabilities and core strengths of the firms. With this assessment of skillsets and labor in hand, our next step was to estimate costs and schedule for various phases, ranging from site protection for flood control to coverings and protection of half-built facilities and equipment sitting in laydown areas. This formed the basis of a budget for the shutdown project.

The basic plan called for Burns & McDonnell crews to go back onto the project site and open everything back up to provide access to the other specialists, enabling them to take the measures needed for full protection of all the assets on-site. Following this, we would return and close the site up again.

Fortunately, this was made much easier by the flexibility and structure of our engineer-procure-construct (EPC) contract. With the broad authority granted to us under the EPC contractual terms and conditions, there was no need for supplemental contracts or other documentation. Without the EPC contract framework, the client would have had to be a lot more involved with everything from building scaffolding to the hundreds of steps needed to protect the site and property.

Needless to say, shutdown roles are atypical of the scope of services we typically perform for clients on EPC projects. Nevertheless, this experience demonstrates that EPC contractual frameworks are ideal for orderly shutdowns and comprehensive protection of equipment and mitigation of regulatory liability for environmental issues like off-site storm runoff.

Though pandemics and other disasters cannot possibly be foreseen in any contractual framework, EPC is proving once again to create the kind of flexibility and responsiveness that clients are demanding.


The chemicals, oil and gas industry requires high-performance teams capable of delivering reliable, cost-effective solutions.


Rajsekhar (Raj) Chelluri is a project director at Burns & McDonnell, leading a range of initiatives in the oil, gas and chemical industry.