The Provence refinery

From the book If the Raffinerie de Provence was told to us ... 1935-1985, released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the refinery in 1985.

The birth of the Refinery (1931-1935)
From its creation, the C.F.R. decides to build a refinery on the Mediterranean coast. It is in fact the closest French seafront to the Middle East, a region which at that time contained the only petroleum resource of the C.F.P.

The prefectural building permit was obtained in 1931.

The C.F.R. first envisages construction in Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône. Then the Compagnie de Saint-Gobain offers the C.F.R. the buyout of the Berre refinery, which has recently been in operation. This refinery does not seem to be working well and the C.F.R. is declining. Finally, the C.F.R. chooses the site of La Mède, on the edge of the Etang de Berre.

The Etang de Berre, naturally in communication with the Mediterranean by the Etang de Caronte, has been open since 1932 to 10,000-ton freighters, after digging the Caronte Canal on the initiative of the Marseille Chamber of Commerce


La Raffinerie de Provence en construction
The Provence refinery under construction


In April 1934, the first construction works were started. The project includes:

  • A combined distillation, atmospheric and vacuum, of 1,500 t / d

  • A mixed conversion unit: cracking and thermal reforming

  • A refining unit

  • A petrol redistillation.

The first building constructed is the Centrale with its 3 Ladd boilers. This building as well as the laboratory, the garage and the management are in 1985 the only vestiges of this time.

At the same time, the construction of housing estates for supervisory staff, engineers and supervisors is being carried out on the Clos Valmont site and in La Mède at a place called "La Pradine". 14 months after the opening of the site, the refinery is ready for start-up.

The lighting of atmospheric distillation takes place on June 8, 1935. The treated crude oil, coming from Iraq, is brought by tankers from 10 kt to 12 kt.

Vacuum distillation and cracking are started respectively in August and September 1935. The products are taken up by a multitude of customers, MATTEI, UPM, DESMARAIS, etc ... TOTAL will not appear until 20 years later.

The workers were recruited locally and trained on the job. He distinguished himself by a great capacity for adaptation. The refinery benefits from the mastery assistance of the sister-refinery of Normandy, which has been in existence for two years. In September 1935 the refinery already had 398 employees.

The pre-war period (1935-1939)
Life at the Refinery

From the start of the factory, a large majority of the staff felt the desire to share extraprofessional, recreational, cultural, sporting and social activities. You could say that the "house" spirit that has always reigned in RP dates from this time.

These activities are organized and led by the "Cercle Français des Raffines". One cannot speak of sports activities at the time without mentioning the glorious epic of the women's basketball team which combined skill and grace. It only took two families to form this team: it was in fact made up of the 3 MASSONE sisters - one of whom will become executive secretary and will have the privilege, as such, of meeting 9 directors - and 2 daughters of '' a customs officer attached to the UPM

The young residents of the cities are not forgotten: a gymnastics section is quickly created and its demonstrations are appreciated during children's parties organized by the Women's Committee. Cinema screenings were mounted - it was not an easy task at the time - in Pradine, in the open air.

But the highlight of the Circle's activities is undoubtedly the annual Pradine celebration. What a party ! Preceded the day before the evening of a torchlight retreat and a ball, it lasts all Sunday: a series of bowls contests, cowhide contests, with "charlottade", demonstrations of Camargue gardians, song contests ... The Circle also had social activities such as helping young mothers or community aches. This is how he organized group purchases of coal that we went to fetch directly from the mine. This Circle participates in the process of affiliation of R.P. staff to the Mutuelle des Pétroles du Sud-Est.

The Cercle Français des Raffines has contributed to strengthening ties between staff members. This "esprit de corps" was of course created and reinforced around the installations that each one tried to exploit under the best conditions. Their conduct was not easy: calls to Engineers, Supervisors, and specialized personnel were frequent at all times to deal with incidents: the solidarity of the staff was not an empty word.

Equipe feminine de basket ball
Refinery Women's Basketball Team


A serious accident occurred in February 1936: a fire following the bursting of a pipe ravaged cracking: 2 dead were deplored. We are strengthening the controls of the equipment at stops, but this is manual control, the means we currently have are far from known. The refinery produces asphalt for vacuum distillation: the product is simply poured into a storage pit where it solidifies. It is then taken up with a pickaxe and a shovel to load it into barrels.

In 1938 construction of cracking 2 started. It was a combined unit which in itself constituted a complete refinery. It was the most modern installation in the world at the time. Cracking 2 includes atmospheric and vacuum distillation, visbreaker, cracking and reforming, refining of essences on bleaching earth, redistillation. Its start-up will double the capacity of the plant, also supplemented by the debutanization of cracking 1 essences and the packaging of butane in bottles.

Cracking 2 was in full swing on Easter day 1939. There will then be other starts on a public holiday: thus will be born the legend of starts at "chime feasts" by the biggest hazard.

The different units that make up the cracking 2 are fully integrated, there is no intermediate storage. This economic arrangement required increased vigilance by the personnel and constant control of the product. The laboratory is in great demand.

RP is a very modern factory at the forefront of current technology. Energy savings are not overlooked, as evidenced by the installation of a very complex system for recompressing gases from crude storage. No doubt the system is too elaborate; the performances are not up to expectations.

At the same time, a foreign power succeeds in sabotaging a tank of the refinery. Petrol descends towards the Rove canal, through which it joins the harbor of Marseille. Like a Greek fire, the tablecloth ignites and ignites Nrüseille ...

The War (1939-1945)

A large contingent of refinery personnel was mobilized in May-June 1939. The installations continued to operate with reduced staff, under the conditions imposed by the "black-out" and "passive defense". The refinery is camouflaged, the tanks surrounded by concrete protections.

A small group of Alsatians withdrawn from the refinery of PECHELBRONN comes in reinforcement: they are appreciated here, although the communication is sometimes not easy, certain Alsatians speaking only the dialect.

The news of each other arrives at the mobilized by the company newspaper "LOU RAFFINAIRE PROUVENCAU", very appreciated link with the refinery.

The C.F.R. cares about the families of those mobilized: half a salary is paid to them.

La Raffinerie en feu après les bombardements
The refinery on fire after the bombing in June 1940.


On June 4, 1940, an air attack was launched against the refinery: the village of La Mède was hit as well as several tanks of the refinery. These ignite and the fire will last 48 hours. A bomb falls head-on on the robe of a tank full of literally exploding water. Yellowish water rushes into the refinery, it is mistaken for diesel and we expect the worst. The factory must stop for lack of crude at the beginning of 1941: the last tanker received unloaded American crude. The refinery will live on for the duration of the war, it processes its own funds of tanks, but also those received from the Normandy refinery as well as from the Frontignan refinery, to extract wax.

The public authorities, concerned about the supply of oils, entrusted the refinery with the recovery of used oils.

A treatment of asphalt pebbles from the Gard is started: a small "blast furnace" has been built for this. The little oil present in the raw material is mainly used to heat the stones, the efficiency of the operation is close to zero. In fact, it is a question of occupying the personnel, reinforced by the folded manpower of the refinery of Normandy, the central laboratory of Paris and the Headquarters, especially after the invasion of the free zone. The objective is in fact to prevent staff from being forcibly recruited into the S.T.O. (Compulsory Labor Service) in Germany. We are continuing with some construction activities: the Polymerization and Charge Preparation facilities are installed.

The CFR will embark on industrial activities more in harmony with its skills: it will be the creation of Etablissements du Comminges in the South-West, near Saint-Gaudens, establishments where part of the staff of RP, RN and of the Headquarters.

In Boussens, we rent an old blowing snow which we will convert to make 2 types of oil:

  • Une huile de graissage dite huile F pour la lubrification des hauts de cylindres des machines à vapeur : il s'agit d'une huile de synthèse, de fabrication complexe et dangereuse utilisant le chlore,

  • Une huile isolante pour transformateur obtenue par pyrolyse et hydrogénation de la colophane des Landes.

A lubricating oil called oil F for the lubrication of the upper cylinders of steam engines: it is a synthetic oil, of complex and dangerous manufacture using chlorine,

An insulating oil for transformer obtained by pyrolysis and hydrogenation of rosin from Landes.

In Peyrouzet, a factory for "degassing" petroleum gases from Saint-Marcet is built, to extract gasoline and butane: we use material recovered from the Fractionation of RP Essences The gas, once "degassed" and debutanized, is compressed to 250kg and used as fuel for cars.

Withdrawn from Comminges Establishments and prisoners in Germany will once again be found at R.P.

Unfortunately, 9 people will be missed, victims of the war. It was in their memory that a stele would be erected in 1948, near the west entrance of the refinery.


From the post-war period to the 30 glorious years (1946-1978)


Shortly after the Liberation, in November 1944, work began to restore the factory which suffered relatively little from the war. The works are made difficult by the shortage of raw materials, we have to manage ... In addition, the refinery must be cleared. Fortunately, the mining plan was able to be recovered.

After the liberation, the armed forces used R.P. as a warehouse for gasoline from the United States and intended for the liberation troops. The fuel is unloaded at Port-de-Bouc and pumped to R.P. by Victaulic joint pipes laid on the ground. In May 1945, the first tanker of the post-war period was unloaded.

In August, the oven in the distillation section of cracker 2 is turned on. It is in full productive operation in September. Electricity is available thanks to hydroelectric power stations, some of which owe their maintenance to state to daring actions carried out by maquisards against the occupying forces at the end of the war. We have the effective help of the Normandy refinery management which, during the war, was totally demolished or dismantled.

In December 1945, the D1 was also in operation. It was not without difficulty, the main tower having been completely blocked ...

Following the Social Orders of May 1945, as in all French factories, the C.E. takes up its function. Mr. DOUCE, engineer, is the first secretary. The tasks of the C.E. were still poorly defined, but it was full of activity. He organized the party for the return of prisoners. He put the Cooperative back into service and took charge of the supply problem. It was the era of the D system, of the "black market" or of the "barter" of some particularly rare commodities for petrol vouchers.

A musical group is created at R.P. and lends its support to the animation of balls, children's mornings, Christmas tree. There is a jazz section, pompously baptized the Raffi Symphonic Jazz. He created a small theater troupe with strong participation of C.F.R. staff, who gave highly appreciated performances during the Pradine celebrations.

Over the years, the refinery's processing progressed: it reached 1,000,000 tonnes in 1946 and exceeded 1,300,000 tonnes in 1948 with the annual pre-war treatment. We fire any wood to process the maximum of crude oil, we use cracking 1 in distillation. We neglect a little, in fact, the quality of gasoline for the benefit of quantity.

The 1949/1971 period saw a considerable development in the production capacity of the factory, from the construction of Distillation No. 2 to that of the Vacuum Distillation D5.

Distillation 2 went into production in 1950, the factory's distillation capacity was then increased to 3,000,000 t / year. This capacity was doubled in 1955 when the Distillation 3, the largest unit in Europe at the time, was launched. The capacity will reach 10,500,000 t / year in 1968 at the start of Distillation 4: this capacity is 20 times greater than the original in 1935!

The downstream units will develop in parallel and RP will have the privilege of bringing into service, for the first time at the C.F.R., new type of installations:

  • The Cr3 catalytic cracker in 1953

  • DGO1, catalytic hydrogen desulfurization in 1957

  • The Cr4 catalytic reforming in 1958, the most important in Europe at the time: air coolers were used for the first time at the C.F.R., which would later be generalized in future units.

The fluid catalytic cracking process is little known in FrancePays FranceShow more; start-up preparations are delicate. The first start-up program will be launched on July 14.

Levage de cheminée du Cracking 3
Cracking regenerator chimney lift 3.


The production of cracking 3 will allow the C.F.R. to manufacture gasoline with high octane number and thus meet market demand for high-performance premium fuel whatever the season. The TOTAL brand will be able to make its remarkable entry. We start manufacturing aircraft gasoline, RP of which is exclusive to FrancePays FranceShow more.

In 1957, a serious event came to mourn RP. A fire broke out at the refinery tank farm.

Following this incident, it was decided to move the loading port of the tankers to the UPM, in the eastern part of the factory. The new central fire station is being built. The Merox process, discovered and developed by the teams of the CFR Research Center, was adopted for the treatment of gasolines in 1957. At the end of the same year, DGO1, desulfurization of diesel oil, was started. should allow RP to ensure the sulfur quality of this product.

The catalytic process requires hydrogen which is not yet available. A piping connecting us to the refinery B.P. of Lavéra allows us to supply us from the "Platforming" of our colleague. The start of our catalytic reforming, cracking 4, enabled us, in 1958, to free ourselves from this external support. This new unit is equipped with the largest vertical oven in Europe at that time.

RP is equipped with large tanks of 60,000 m3, decommissioning the butane bottle packaging, which, from now on, will be ensured at the liquefied gas depot from Stogas to Marignane, depot supplied by pipe from RP. Some sectors are being modernized: tanker truck loads are equipped with a computer, the construction of the CGA automatic filling station for tank cars is decided. We are remodeling (called "revamping") the old installations to increase their capacity or allow more automated operation from the common control room. The quality of road bitumens is improved by the use of Boscan crude. The vacuum distillation of Distillation 1 is suitable for this treatment.

At the time of the events of May 1968, a new section of installations was under construction. Distillation 4 started in July 1968, the new catalytic reforming - Cracking 5 - and DGO2 in 1969. When starting the D4, the new torch n ° 4 spits gasoline and the fire is communicated to the brush in the direction of Grand Vallon, a threatened moment. The intervention of the Canadairs stopped the spread of fire.

The catalytic cracking must be adapted to make it homogeneous with the distillation units. Work was undertaken in 1970-1971 to double its capacity. The modification of the regenerator is particularly spectacular; we simply proceed to the standard exchange of the internals of the regenerator by opening it, extracting "Dome", "Plenum Chamber" and "Diplegs" and replacing the whole by an assembly whose equipment has been entirely mounted on the ground and which is then "recalotated" on the regenerator. The Centrale 2 was started in 1971, shortly before the vacuum distillation D5.

The first oil crisis took place in 1973; no immediate impact on RP's activity, which continues to operate at its maximum capacity until 1978. During this period, the constitution of the finished products is improved by the commissioning of the fuels mixer - the gasoline mixer is already in service -.

The calories contained in the smoke from the catalytic cracking regenerator are recovered by the commissioning of the CO boiler in 1978.


The aftermath of the oil shocks: the adaptation period (1979 -1985)


After 1979, R.P. was hit by the reduction in the consumption of petroleum products. Its crude oil processing will decrease by 8,175,000 tonnes in 1980, 4,488,000 tonnes in 1983. The 1984 processing will be even lower (3,850,000 tonnes) but the D4 has been stopped for a large part of the 4th quarter for modernization and maintenance works. R.P. must adapt to the market, which requires an increasing yield of petrol and diesel, but also to environmental problems, such as the reduction of the sulfur content of domestic gas oils and fuel oils.

The DGO3 was put into service in 1980. The Alkylation and Viscoreduction units were put into service in 1981. We must resolve to stop the D3 and Cr4 definitively in early 1983.

The adaptation of the refining tool, to increase the value of products and lower manufacturing costs, required a considerable modernization effort from 1980. In addition to the Alkylation and Viscoreduction units, modernization focused on transfers ( diesel mixer, simplification of circuits with elimination of buried lines, elimination of unnecessary storage ...) and shipments (report on Lavéra of almost all shipments by water). New techniques are used with regard to automation and remote control: microprocessors, centralized control stations. The basic units of the refinery, D4 and Cr5, were modernized at the end of 1984, to increase the recovery rates of liquefied gases and the yield by reforming them, and reducing energy consumption.

New bitumen loading stations will come into service in 1985. The energy production tool will not be outdone: the construction of a new turbo generator set in 1986 will allow the installations of the old plant to be shut down completely. An efficient energy package that is well suited to the new refining scheme.

The refinery closed in December 2016 after 80 years of service. Conversion work has been undertaken to make it the largest French bio-refinery on a world scale.



Vue aérienne pendant les travaux de reconversion
The Provence refinery during the reconversion works in 2017 (© IMRE Nedim - TOTAL)