How it all started
Because of its geographical position and magnificent natural sea ports, Curaçao has been utilized as a commercial base between Europe and the American continent since colonial times. When the sonorous machines of the steamboat replaced the sailing vessels, Curaçao also became a port for replenishing the ships with coal. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the position of Curaçao became even more strategic.
The systematic oil exploration of the Venezuelan territory started in 1910 when Caribbean Petroleum, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell group, discovered rich hydrocarbon formations in the basin of Lake Maracaibo, 400 kilometers from the Island of Curaçao. The production of the wells on Lake Maracaibo permitted the export of oil, but the lake’s shallow waters, and the lack of sheltered deep water ports on Venezuela’s west part coast presented difficulties for larger vessels.
The natural seaports and political stability of Curaçao as part of the Dutch Kingdom were important considerations in Shell’s decision to construct a refinery in Curaçao.
In May 1915 Shell took the first step towards construction and acquired the plantation known as “Asiento” and the peninsula belonging to it. Since that time the refinery has been known as “Isla”, the name subsequently adopted by Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. for its Curaçao subsidiary. Since World War I was in full swing on the European continent the construction of the refinery progressed slowly. It was not until 1918 that the first oil from Lake Maracaibo was processed in Curaçao.
In those days the refinery consisted of two distilling units and one heavy fuel conversion unit manned by 300 workers. It was a time of vast technological change: ships converted from coal to fuel oil, trains switched to diesel, the automobile industry developed and the petroleum industry benefitted.
This new demand for oil products pointed towards the need for additional refining capacity at Curaçao.
The original site of “Asiento” soon became too small to accommodate the expanding refinery and the plantation “Valentijn” and “De Hoop” were acquired in the late twenties. In 1927 the sea terminal at the deep-water port of Caracasbaai was constructed to fuel ships too large to enter the Schottegat Bay. As a result of these expansions, the workforce increased to some 10,924 people in 1929.
The growth of the refinery was slowed again during the economic crisis of the early 1930’s. In 1935 construction and expansion were resumed, this time of units for the production of distillates, in particular high octane gasoline and lubricating oil.
After World War II
After World War II a renovation and expansion program started and in 1952 the refinery employed a record 12,631 workers.
In 1958 the refinery expanded with the addition of a Catalytic Cracking unit. In 1960 a new high pressure power plant was put in operation. To comply with U.S. government regulations regarding the sulphur content of fuel oil exports to the United States, a desulphurization plant and a platforming unit were put in operation in 1967. One year later three seawater distilling plants were built, decreasing the dependence on fresh water imports.
From the Sixties
The sixties marked the beginning of automation and the use of computers. To improve the yield and in order to comply with antipollution regulations of some customers, a high vacuum unit and a light distillate hydrotreater were constructed in 1970. The Thermal Cracking units 1 and 2 were built in 1977 and 1983 respectively.
The rise of oil prices in 1973 directly affected the refinery which totally depended on imported crudes. The higher cost of hydro carbons reduced the demand for products and as a result part of the refinery became non-operational. Since that time a closer association with Venezuela has allowed the continuation of the refinery.
In 1974 an additional terminal was constructed at Bullenbay. Both Caracasbaai and Bullenbay are deepwater ports sheltered from winds and waves.
In late 1975 the Venezuelan oil industry was nationalized. Previously linked to Compania Shell de Venezuela, the Curaçao refinery became independent from the Venezuelan oil industry, but it maintained close relations with the various operating companies of Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. which supplied the crude necessary for its operations. Because of the dependence on imported crudes and the situation of the international oil market, the Shell refinery’s position became difficult in the early eighties.
A New Beginning
In early 1985 the governments of Curaçao, the Netherlands Antilles, the Netherlands, Venezuela and Shell started discussing the possible closing of the refinery, and in July Shell stopped its operations. On September 24th, Shell agreed to transfer the refining installations at Emmastad and the marine terminals of Bullenbaai and Caracasbaai to the Island Territory of Curaçao. In turn the government created “Refineria di Korsou N.V.” as owner of the refinery installations and the terminals. “Curoil N.V” was created to handle local marketing while “Kompania di Tou Korsou N.V” (KTK) took over tug services in Schottegat Bay and at Caracasbaai. Both Curoil N.V. and KTK N.V., as is the case with Refineria di Korsou N.V. are owned by the Island Territory of Curaçao. On that same day a Letter of Intent was signed by Petroles de Venezuela SA (PDVSA.) to lease the refinery and the terminals at Bullenbaal and Caracasbaal. On October 1st, 1985, PDVSA’s subsidiary Refineria Isla (Curazao) S.A ., took over the operation of the refinery and immediately started the reactivation of the processing units.
Refineria Isla Curaçao B.V. provides processing and storage services to PDVSA and this can be made available to third parties. The products are marketed internationally through PDVSA Comercio y Suministro.
In 2007 the name of the refinery was changed into Refineria Isla Curaçao B.V..