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At LyondellBasell’s soon-to-close Houston refinery, hundreds of workers fret over a “fresh start.”

Anthony Emanuel has worked at LyondellBasell’s Houston refinery in the shipping channel for nearly 10 years, earning him a day job that works outside of the seniority-based shift work that defines the lives of many refinery workers.

Emanuel, 38, knows he should look for a new job to protect his family from the imminent closure of the plant, but he is still recovering from the shock of his wife’s death from cancer last year. A new job would also mean giving up the cheap schedule he has earned through seniority at the plant – a schedule that allows him to work while his 6- and 9-year-old children are at school, and who gives him time early enough to spend time with her at night.

“I would start from scratch,” he said. “It’s a whole lot of change happening all at once.”

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Emanuel, who works on the refinery’s safety investigation team, is one of about 1,000 union and contract workers at the site whose jobs are at risk as the chemical company plans to shut down the refinery, which processes oil into gasoline and other products, later this year to reposition themselves in a changing energy landscape.

Refinery workers are used to seeing refineries closing for repairs and changing hands, but this upcoming closure is different. The proposed closure would mark the end of an era for Houston Refining, believed to be the oldest refinery in the greater Houston area. It’s also pioneering an energy transition to combat climate change, which also threatens the livelihoods of thousands of Houstonians working along the Houston Ship Channel.

LyondellBasell, which is trying to position itself as a global leader in the transition to cleaner products and recycled plastics, said after sparring with the United Steelworkers union earlier this month that it will work to move as many refinery workers as possible into new roles within the industry union to relocate company.

The company said closing the refinery would help it meet its ambitious emissions reduction goals and potentially make way for “a very large investment” at the Highway 225 site as the company’s molecular recycling technology advances. Last week it said it could convert the site into a hydrogen plant.

“We have and will be in regular communication with our local employees throughout this process to update them on our plans,” the company said in a statement.

Shutdowns have become more frequent since the pandemic began to hit fuel markets, forcing companies to decide whether a refinery’s long-term prospects justify the costs as the transition to electric vehicles and cleaner fuels accelerates. Still, this is a first for the area east and south of downtown, where refineries have long been the lifeblood of working class neighborhoods.

The jobs are tough, but they pay well, often offering six-figure salaries with no educational requirements.

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“It’s a standard in the shipping channel to still have pensions,” said Priscilla Puente, who has worked in various capacities at the Lyondell refinery for nearly 20 years. “People go there and spend their entire careers there because they know they can raise their families with that money.”

A single parent supporting her 80-year-old mother with dementia, Puente, 52, said the prospect of losing her job keeps her up late worrying about whether she can afford her 13-year-old daughter’s education or not can renovate her bathroom to replace the bathtub that her mother can no longer get in and out of safely.

After a back injury and a battle with cervical cancer, Puente moved from the refinery’s crude oil unit to the office, where she mainly works for the United Steelworkers, which represents around 500 workers at the plant. She spent her prime at the refinery, she said. Now “I feel like damaged goods.”

Getting back into the job market is also nerve-wracking at a time when so much is changing in the energy industry, she said. She might consider working at one of the Houston-area plastics plants, she said, but what if plastics are next to fall behind refineries? She fears what the energy transition could mean for her long-term prospects.

“I’m not confident they’ll be able to create enough good jobs to replace the ones we’re losing,” she said.

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Lance Spurlock, 58, has worked at the refinery for 15 years and has “pulled wrenches” at various jobs throughout his career. He said he fought hard to get the union job at the refinery with the understanding that, as is customary in the industry, he would end his career there.

With the plant closing, he said, he’ll likely be forced back into contract work, which pays significantly less and is inconsistent.

“Even though there are laws against age discrimination, I will not take another job like this,” he said.

A future without the refinery is hard to imagine for many of its workers. George Simpson, 68, has worked there for almost 50 years. His father and grandfather worked at the same site when it was owned by Sinclair, which developed the refinery in 1918.

Closing the facility when it seems to have so much life left makes no sense, Simpson said. “It tears me apart. I do not believe it. I can only – I can’t take care of it.

For his part, Emanuel wants LyondellBasell to reconsider its plans to close the plant and work with potential buyers to protect jobs at the site. He, too, comes from a long line of refinery workers. His grandfather and great-grandfather also worked at Houston Refining.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” Emanuel said, “to shut down a refinery in Texas.”

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