The Demise of Ioco Refinery

Ioco Refinery circa 1923

Ioco (Imperial Oil Co) Refinery was built in 1914 in Port Moody (Vancouver), BC and closed in 1995 when it was converted to a petroleum products terminal. I worked there as a chemical process engineer from 1974-78. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The refinery converted 40,000 bbl/day of light Alberta crude oil to a wide range of products including gasoline and diesel fuels, aviation and marine fuels, home heating oil, propane, butane, bunker fuels, asphalt and specialty chemicals like xylene. Crude oil arrived by pipeline; products were shipped out via pipeline, truck, rail, ship and barge. As such it was a small medium complex refinery. The diagram below is indicative of this facility. We did not produce petroleum coke or hydrogen.

I was contact engineer for the crude distillation unit and then subsequently for the amine treating and Claus sulfur plant. As contact engineer I was responsible for monitoring and reporting on the operation, dialoguing with the operators and equipment techs on issues as well as for special projects such as optimizing the thickness of insulation to install on heated oil tanks, designing pumping and product blender installations, etc. Below is the actual flow plan for Ioco Refinery prepared by Art Quan, P.Eng in 1974.

A good part of the job was problem solving. We were taught that “A problem is a deviation with a cause unknown.” We were given lot’s of training on how to solve problems. Example problems: “We are flaring off too much propane this week because the capacity of the merox treater is down;” or, “The output of the sulphur plant is low because we can’t control the air to H2S ratio accurately.” Fix it! You get the idea.

I remember my first day, entering the control room glittering with controls and screens, slide rule and text book in hand, thinking I was going to change the world. The operator looks up at me and scowls to himself, “not another green engineer that I’ll have to break in.” Well I quickly learned to be humble, ask questions, build trust and gradually the operators would open up and tell you what the problem was from their perspective e.g, “I can’t increase the flow to the crude unit without the safety valve blowing on the distillate recycle tank. Maybe the safety valve pressure setting should be checked.”

Ioco Terminal Today

Once the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union went on strike. I think it was over the imposition of wage and price controls by Pierre Trudeau. Well we engineers and management staff took over operating the refinery. I remember working 7 x 12 hour midnight shifts in a row. We would walk around the units checking the colour of a gauze indicator pinned to our jacket. If it started to turn brown you were in danger of being gassed to death by H2S. I got so tired and stressed out I had an anxiety attack and quit smoking for awhile. Probably a good thing, lol.

The best thing about working at Ioco was the people. I made so many friends there. We skied together, golfed, fished and partied. We had fun and felt a real calling to working there. I worked with some great engineers like Ron Brenneman who went on to become CEO of Petrocanada. Ditto Brant Sangster who became VP Marketing at Petrocanada. I met good friend Greg Walther who went on the manage the Coastal Refinery operations in Corpus Christi, TX. I remember working with John Hunter, a good engineer; Blake Forrest who was bright and good natured; senior engineer Les Gould who mentored me; supervisor Peter Ambrose who moved on to Syncrude; Bob Runge in the instrument shop; Ron Stalker chief of inspection (who has passed away now I think); Ken Blowey, Art Quan and Barry who I went fishing with. Also refinery fire chief Al Sholund who authored local history including about Ioco oil tankers;

I also remember working with Chuck Chang who moved on to BC Hydro Gas, Eric Brown and Michel Poliquin in the computer group, Al Matsumoto with Reid Crowther Engineers, good friend Neil Nicholson from Newcastle on Tyne who moved back to the UK, Roy Warnock who went to Bechtel, Edmonton, Tom Mitchell who transferred to Dartmouth Refinery (and then worked with my university class buddy Gerry Sullivan) and, a slew of others. (If any of you and any other Ioco colleague I failed to mention are reading this please drop me a comment – thanks!)

Imperial Oil was and is an extremely well managed company. However it is a tough company not unwilling to make changes which affect people. After 4 years at the refinery, I moved to their Product Distribution Division for another 4 years.

Alex Pivarnyik was Refinery Manager and compassionate leader

About the demise of Ioco Refinery. Remember that pipeline, the Trans Mountain that brought crude oil from Alberta? Well turns out it can also bring refined product. In 1976, Imperial built a brand new state of the art refinery in Edmonton. The Strathcona refinery was huge, first 120,000 bbl/day, then 165,000 bbl/day and now 187,000 bbl/day capacity. In 1995, Imperial Oil decided to shut down the relatively inefficient Ioco Refinery and ship refined petroleum products by pipeline from Strathcona and some by rail to Vancouver from Alberta. The cost of the landed product is less this way. So Ioco Refinery was permanently shutdown and dismantled at the end of 1995. A sad day for the hundreds of skilled employees that worked there for sure.

Two other Vancouver refineries were shut down leaving only one in operation (Parkland Fuels Corp.) Fast forward to 2019. The population of British Columbia has grown immensely, particularly the Lower Mainland. There is now a shortage of refined product which is filled by imports from Washington State. There is an industry perceived need for a new refinery to be built in Vancouver but the political, social and environmental forces arrayed against this are huge. Meanwhile, massive traffic jams, slow commutes, unaffordable housing and high priced fuels are common here.

Ioco Crude Unit c. 1977
Ioco tank farm looking toward Belcarra c. 1977
Ioco pipeway c. 1977
Ioco butane sphere c. 1977

I am all for a greener future but we have to stop driving our fossil fueled cars, make better use of solar and electricity to heat our homes, take public transit more often, stop flying, cruising etc. Thanks for all those memories Ioco friends, you are not forgotten. In the moment, what do you think about the oil industry, pipelines and how we can ensure a greener future?

Original Ioco fire hydrant courtesy Bob Lindley

Bob Lindley recently sent me the above photo of an Ioco fire hydrant destined for the metal dealers dump that he rescued. I wonder if it was ever used other than for training and maintenance? Thanks Bob. Do you live near Ioco and/or, did you work there?


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31 responses to “The Demise of Ioco Refinery

  1. Well what a informative class i was privy to, this morning. thanks to bro Dave.Unaware of your work in the refinery.
    Of course in Saint John,there is one of the biggest in Canada.
    The fall out of refining oil is necessary for the betterment of our life styles.At times our air quality is poor.Not always for sure.
    Thanks for sharing.


    • Thanks for your comment Kevin. Yes no one likes an oil refinery these days, especially in their back yard. The Irving St John Refinery is the biggest in Canada at 320,000 bbl/day, wow! You already heat your house with electricy and are down to 1 snow blower! Congrats! Hope all is well with you and Phyllis and that winter is not there yet.


  2. Wow David! Now without a refinery in BC – the people there actually have the highest gas prices except for the far north. Sad.

    The picture of the house on west 14th – I lived on 15th just 4 houses west of Wallace.


    • Wow Eleanor, you lived in West Point Grey near to the Academy where Trudeau played black face! Yes the price of gas was $1.54.9 when we were out there. They may have an additional carbon tax in Vancouver as the price dropped a bit in Port Moody. We found YVR overwhelming now – traffic, people, high riseses, cars, dogs, bikes all jammed together. Thanks for your comment and like!


  3. Susan McGowan

    A good little article . Thanks. My Dad Peter McGowan may have been one of the operators who scowled at you . He did not suffer fools easily. He worked at most everything there including Plant controller and in the end shift foreman. He took early retirement in the early 80’s when they were starting to downsize. He loved his job and at times I think he wished he had stayed working.


    • Thanks so much for your comment Susan. I likely worked with you dad although I do not recall his name. We were all family there. We all loved Ioco and hated it at times too. LOL


      • Susan McGowan, I definitely remember your dad now and can still see his smiling face in the control room.


      • Art Quan

        Hi Dave,
        This is Art Quan. John Hunter forwarded your post to me. We are still close friends. He lives in North Vancouver and I am in Coquitlam. What a great summary of our time at Ioco. Brings back lots of fond memories. I transferred to Toronto, shortly after you left, in 1978. I spent 8 years in Toronto at Esso Petroleum, advancing thru several positions, eventually becoming Chief Engineer of Process Design. I left IOL in 1986, wanting to return home to Vancouver. I joined our family Noodle Manufacturing business until we sold the business in 2015. My wife Wendy and I are now happily retired in a condo in Coquitlam. Our family has grown to include 6 grandchildren. I was so happy to read your post and hope that you are well.
        Warmest regards,
        Art Quan


      • Art, so nice to hear from you after all these years! I live in a small town just west of Ottawa called Arnprior. Marie and I have 4 grandchildren with another one on the way. I worked in Marketing Distribution engineering automating bulk plants in BC until 1982. I then left Imperial to return to my hometown Ottawa. Initially I worked for Systemhouse Controls on SCADA projects and then joined Weights and Measures progressing to laboratory and program management. I retired from the Public Service in 2010. I keep in touch with Greg Walther who lives in La Quinta, CA and Norm Tatlow whom I met at Lougheed Terminal and who lives in Victoria. We certainly had some good times at Ioco. What was Fred’s family name? Do you keep in touch with anyone else from those days? Say hi to John in North Van. All the best, Dave


      • Art Quan

        Hi Dave,

        I see we kinda crossed paths in opposite directions; you moving back east and me west.

        When you mention Fred, are you thinking of Fred Sherman or Fred Cheah? I lost contact with Fred Sherman after he left Ioco. Fred Cheah and I remained good friends until his untimely death almost 15 years ago. Hi widow, Hennie lives in Toronto and just visited with us 2 weeks ago. We remain close friends.

        Please give my regards to Greg Walthers when you next communicate with him. I’ll be sure to pass on your greetings to John. We just had dinner together 2 nights ago.

        Best regards,


      • Thanks Art. It was Fred Sherman whom I was thinking of. He went to Rainbird sprinklers I recall. Sorry to hear about Fred Cheah. I don’t recall meeting him.


      • Art Quan

        I recall too that Fred Sherman went to Rainbird Sprinklers after he left Ioco, and later heard that he had moved from Coquitlam to Belcara, but that was many years ago. Fred Cheah worked for Engineering Division in Sarnia and I got to now him when he was out on assignment. You may not have met him.


  4. Gloria Cowan

    Who was the company doctor at the refiner


    • Hi Gloria. There was no doctor on site. We all had to get an annual medical checkup at a doctor’s office in Port Moody I recall. In Jan 1978 I was vaccinated by a J. or I. Blatherwick, MD which might have been at the Port Moody office or at somewhere else. Thanks for your question. Sorry I could not be of more help.


  5. John B Platt

    I worked first at( Winnipeg ) tranferred to Dartmouth, now shut down and dismantled, they were the good old days, as someone said, just a big family. So I have worked in two refineries, shutdown work at Regina and Fort Mac. Close to retirement I got tired of many things and shortly after retired.
    Been a wonderful company to work for. To those that worked with me and complained about the company, I would say (don’t like it (move on ).


  6. Fab

    Hello Dave,
    Could you email me, I do have a question I would like to ask.


  7. John

    Would there be anyone from Winnipeg or Dartmouth out there in cyberspace


    • John Hunter

      I worked at IOCO about 1970-73 before taking a two rear assignment in Venezuela. Loved IOCO. One big happy family.

      My Dad worked as Chief Chemist at Dartmouth Refinery and as a kid I lived in the townsite. Dad then transferred toSarnia refinery.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hey John, really nice to hear from you. You must have been at Ioco well into 1974 as I arrived in early April and we met. Sounds like you had an interesting career. What happened after Venezuela?


      • John Hunter

        Yes Dave I remember you. Venezuela then IOEL Dev. Division in Toronto, then 5 years with Dome Pete, then 10 years as VP Gas Supply Union Gas, then 5 years VP International, the I quit and went consulting: a year in Mexico (we loved it), a year as Pres. and CEO of Hamilton Utility Corp, then a series of Vancouver based consulting jobs, ten I quit altogether working. Living in N. Vancouver. Still see Art and Wendy Quan a fair bit.


        Liked by 1 person

  8. Colin

    Great – good to know. Thanks for this. I was wondering what was going at that site. Nice to hear the human side too and something positive about a company working to quietly delivering stuff we need Cheers


  9. Bob lindley

    Hi. I’ve been given a fire hydrant from the refinery. It was going to a metal dealer but I grabbed it and plan on restoring it. I would sure like to see pictures of it mounted at the refinery. It’s 4 ft. High with a nozzle on a swivel. Can’t figure out how to attach a picture. Any info would be appreciated! Bob


  10. Bob

    No I didn’t work there but reading here it sounded like a great place to work. Wonder if a former safety officer or emergency manager knows anything?


    • Shane Marshall

      My father (Gerry Marshall) and I recovered that hydrant. We salvaged 5 of them directly from IOCO site. He worked there from 1965-1995. I still have another one, I restored. It’s on display in front of my house.


  11. Bob Lindley

    my Email Shane, is


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