Employed by Shell in Martinez, CA, Victoria Reneau hails from a Louisiana family mostly made up of refinery workers. - Photo by Anton Riecher

Employed by Shell in Martinez, CA, Victoria Reneau hails from a Louisiana family mostly made up of refinery workers.

Photo by Anton Riecher

Working in a refinery is a career that can be unique for a young female college graduate. But refineries were an essential part of life where Shell process operator and emergency responder Victoria Reneau grew up.

“It’s nice to be involved in something that you’ve been around your whole life but never really understood,” Reneau said. “Now I understand.”

Norco, located 24 miles west of New Orleans, takes its name from the original refinery built there more than one hundred years ago, the New Orleans Refining Company The Shell Petroleum Corporation, a forerunner of Shell Oil Company, acquired the Norco Refinery in 1929. The chemical plant was added in 1955.

The Shell Norco Manufacturing Complex, is an integrated petrochemicals asset that has the capacity to process 250,000 barrels of crude oil a day among other fuels. In addition, the site’s chemical plant produces ethylene and propylene, aromatic feedstocks, and olefin feedstocks.  

Reneau’s mother worked for Shell, as did her uncle and many cousins. Her grandfather retired from Shell. The only outlaw in the family was her father.

“My dad worked at a nuclear plant,” Reneau said.

Today, Reneau’s four-year old career with Shell finds her working at the company’s Martinez, CA, refinery, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. That refinery processes up to 165,000 barrels of crude oil a day into various hydrocarbon products.

Her role as a training instructor for the refinery’s emergency response team occasionally brings her to Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s Brayton Fire Training Field in College Station, TX. She brought 22 new hires for the Shell corporate fire school in February and expects to bring another 13 in April.

Reneau graduated from Louisiana State University as a kinesiology major and has contemplated going for a master’s degree. But her fascination with refineries took her down a different path.

“I had taken some classes in process technology and I grew more and more interested,” she said. “Then I started taking more classes. There are so many things you can learn. It’s just never ending.”

After an internship at Shell’s Geismar, LA, refinery, she found that her heart was set on a career with the company. Even as a child she was fascinated by the refineries and chemical plants that surrounded her.

“When you’d see a flare you’d wonder what’s going on over there,” Reneau said. “Now I understand that it’s a safety mechanism.”

She barely remembers the epic industrial emergency in 2001 that is part of her hometown’s claim to fame.  Lightning ignited a 270-foot diameter jumbo storage tank filled with gasoline at the Orion refinery while in the midst of a sudden tropical storm flooded the tank farm and raised havoc along the Gulf Coast.

Miraculously, the fire was extinguished after a 13-hour battle involving Williams Fire and Hazard Control and 200 other firefighters. Reneau was only 11 years old at the time.“

My parents probably remember it,” she said.

Refining may be in her blood but Reneau’s interest in emergency response developed after joining the Shell payroll.

“At Martinez, we ask that new hires serve at least three years on the ERT unless some medical issue or other problem prevents it,” she said. “Beyond that three year stint the employee can continue with the ERT as a volunteer if they so choose.”

Building on her work with the basic fire crew, Reneau progressed forward into instructing and building leadership skills.

“We don’t officially designate anyone as an instructor,” she said. “I’m just one of the people that put in the effort to learn more and are willing to share it with others.”

Reneau has made three trips to Brayton specifically for leadership development training. She hopes to advance to an instructor position in that skill as well.

“Back home I’m part of a program called Peer to Peer,” Reneau said. “New hires come to you and ask questions that might feel awkward or weird under other circumstances. Asking a peer makes them feel more comfortable.”

Her interest in leadership is an outgrowth of playing team sports, she said. 

“I kind of have that rough edge to me,” she said. “I grew up playing softball and my father was my softball coach. He was always harder on me. So I grew up learning leadership skills through team sports.”

It also taught her to be competitive, she said.

Her background in kinesiology also gives her an interest in health and safety that contributes to her emergency response work, she said.

At Brayton, Reneau said she particularly enjoys the nature of giving instruction in advanced basic firefighting courses.

“When you’re an instructor at this level you’re feeding them information,” Reneau said. “You’re not just telling them ‘Go throw cooling water on it.’ You’re explaining why you need to throw cooling water on it. It’s a different experience from teaching a refresher course to firefighters that already know the material.”

It is hard to stop in the middle of a live-fire training evolution to explain something to a first timer, she said. But even then the instructor’s attitude and experience can make an important contribution to that student’s understanding.

“A newbie might see fire on the ground coming towards them and freak out a bit,” Reneau said. “The instructor has to be personable enough that when you say “just calm down, it’s going to be okay,” the student believes it.”

Gaining the confidence of fellow firefighters in critical situations becomes even more important as the generation with the most experience with big industrial fires reaches retirement age.

“At our plant we don’t have trouble getting the guys who have the first-hand experience and knowledge to come in and back us up if we need it,” Reneau said.

So far, Reneau has been well trained for an emergency response, but works equally hard to be sure they don’t happen.

Reneau is still unsure if her future with Shell will be in operations or emergency response.

“Because I’m young I still have a lot to learn,” she said. “But I think within the next couple of years I’ll kind of narrow down my options.”