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.

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. Imperial Oil was and probably still 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.

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.

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?

4 Comments

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4 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.
    Kevin

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    • 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.

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  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.

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    • 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!

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