HOUSTON (Reuters) - Saudi Aramco <IPO-ARMO.SE> took the first steps toward expanding the largest U.S. refinery on Saturday, which is operated by its subsidiary Motiva Enterprises.
Aramco's Chief Executive Amin Nasser signed agreements with Honeywell UOP, <HON.N> and Technip FMC <FTI.N> to study petrochemical production technology for use in a multi-billion-dollar chemical plant the company is considering building at the Port Arthur refinery.
"These agreements signal our plans for expansion into petrochemicals," said Motiva's Chief Executive Brian Coffman.
Coffman also said Motiva is evaluating boosting the 603,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) refinery's capacity to 1 million or 1.5 million bpd, which would make it the largest in the world.
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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is finishing a two-week visit to the United States, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry were present at the signing.
The aromatics unit for which Honeywell UOP's technology is being considered would convert benzene and paraxylene, byproducts of gasoline production, into 2 million tons annually of feedstocks for chemicals and plastics.
The Technip FMC technology would produce 2 million tons a year of ethylene, which is used to make plastics, Motiva said.
The final investment decision on the Port Arthur petrochemical plant is not expected until 2019, Motiva said in a statement.
Coffman did not provide a timeline for the possible expansion of the Port Arthur refinery's crude oil processing capacity.
"That's something we're evaluating, we're studying for in the future," he said.
The 1.2-million bpd Reliance Industries <RELI.NS> refinery in Jamnagar, India, has the world's largest crude oil processing capacity.
Aramco last year said it would invest $18 billion in Motiva to expand the refinery and move into petrochemical production.
Other U.S. companies, including Chevron Phillips Chemical Co - a joint venture of Chevron Corp <CVX.N> and Phillips 66 <PSX.N> - and Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N>, have recently opened plants, like the one Motiva is considering, to process ethane into ethylene.
Chevron Phillips is considering building a second ethane cracker on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The price tag for a large ethane cracker is typically over $6 billion, according to analysts. In addition to taking refining byproducts, ethane crackers provide hydrogen for refineries to use in making motor fuels.
(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Sandra Maler)