Sri Lanka’s only refinery at Sapugaskanda on November 17, 2021, two days after it was shut down as the government ran out of dollars to import crude oil ( AFP / ISHARA S. KODIKARA)

Misleading reports claim Sri Lanka's oil refinery was shut down for 'first time' since 1969

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After Sri Lanka shut its only oil refinery in an escalating economic crisis, Facebook posts claimed the closure was the first since it was built in 1969. The claim is misleading; while it is the first time that the Sapugaskanda oil refinery is being shut due to lack of crude oil, it briefly closes around thirty days every few years for maintenance.

"Asia's golden torch that was lit continuously since 1969 comes to a stop," reads a Sinhala-language Facebook post from November 15.

The post shares a stock photo of the Sapugaskanda oil refinery, Sri Lanka's single largest oil refinery built in 1969.  It has been shared more than 700 times on Facebook.

Sri Lanka on November 15 temporarily shut its only oil refinery for 50 days after running out of dollars to import crude, in an escalating economic crisis that has triggered shortages of food and other staples.

The country's foreign reserves had fallen to $2.3 billion at the end of October, down from $7.5 billion when the current government came to power almost two years ago, AFP reported.

Screenshot of the Facebook post captured on November 16, 2021

Similar Facebook posts circulated here and here

Comments on the posts suggest people believed the claim that this is the first time the oil refinery has been shut down since 1969.

"Come let us celebrate the shutdown of Sapugaskanda refinery for the first time in history," one comment read.

Another user wrote, "This is not a temporary shut down, chances are the refinery too has been sold to somebody."

However, the posts are misleading. 

While Sri Lankan media outlet Colombo Page reported that this is the first time that the Sapugaskanda oil refinery is being shut down due to lack of crude oil, Sri Lanka's Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila told reporters on November 15 that this was not the first time the refinery was shut. 

"Every two to three years, the refinery flame goes out when it it shut down for maintenance purposes that lasts up to a month," he said in Sinhala.

In April 2018, Sri Lanka's Sunday Observer reported on a "colossal 35-day overhaul and renovation program" that closed the refinery.

"The scheduled renovation in 2018 is a procedure commissioned every 3 years, and focuses on maintenance and replacing critical facilities and equipment to operate the refinery at optimum levels," it reported.

In June 2014, Sri Lankan news website News First reported on another shutdown for maintenance.

S&P Global Platts, which reports on energy news, said in August 2020 that the refinery was due to undergo a full shutdown in 2021 that is "scheduled every two years generally", quoting a statement from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.