Thursday, January 31, 2019

Elka Hercules at Irving Oil and a digression

The chemical and product tanker  Elka Hercules at Irving Oil Woodside is scheduled to sail early tomorrow morning after discharging cargo from Europe.

The ship has obviously been used to carry corrosive chemicals, if the condition of the hull paint is any indication. Fortunately on this trip it is carrying fuel. The ship is operated by European Product Carriers Ltd, the managing arm of European Navigation Inc of Athens. The company owns about 35 tankers of various sizes, all carrying the "Elka" prefix. This ship is one of the older ones, built in 2002 by Brodospas, Split, Croatia, and measuring 27,539 gt, 44,481 dwt.

Elka Hercules loaded the cargo in Amsterdam and sailed from there January 18,arriving here January 29. Irving Oil has a facility in Amsterdam that stores and blends product from its own refinery in Ireland and other sources.  Irving Oil also refines western Canadian crude oil at its refinery in Saint John,  NB, that is delivered by rail. One has to wonder, if Alberta oil is so vastly underpriced by world standards, how the European oil is competitive. There may be several answers. One might be the limitation of supply. Rail lines can only handle so much traffic, and if Irving has unmet demand, then the cost of the oil becomes secondary. Second is the high cost of refining oil sands crude (even if upgraded) compared to North Sea crude.

Irving Oil also sources overseas crude oil at its Saint John refinery. As far as I am aware none of that oil comes, at least directly, from Venezuela. However now with a virtual embargo on Venezuelan crude, there will be pressure on other crude suppliers for more product.

The Venezuelan situation is a reminder that the Imperial Oil refinery in Dartmouth (now gone) was built to process Venezuelan oil, and at one time Imperial Oil had important ties there.  A fleet of shallow draft tankers transported crude oil from the shallow Lac Maracaibo to Aruba where it was transferred to deep sea tankers. Those tankers came on to the various refineries on the eastern seaboard, including Dartmouth and even as far as Montreal in season. At one time Venezuela was virtually the ony source of crude oil for eastern Canada.

In 1941, while the United States was still neutral, a 236 mile pipeline was built between South Portland, ME and Montreal, alongside the Canadian National Railway's right of way. Tankers were then able to sail up the US east coast, in neutral waters, and discharge without entering the war zone. That was a short lived reprieve as the US entered the Second World War later the same year. However the pipeline continued in use until two years ago. It is now maintained in a "wet" condition to prevent corrosion, but is not used except when there is a disruption in delivery of western oil to Montreal by pipeline. When forest fires hit Fort McMurray two years ago and production was halted, the pipeline was in use for a time.

Talk of reversing the flow to deliver western crude to tidewater has met with public backlash in Maine and Vermont, and many municipalities have expressed their displeasure with non-binding ordinances against "dirty oil". Last summer a judge found in favour of South Portland's municipal ban on western crude. The major objection was pollution from vapour combustion units used to burn off the VOCs used to make tar sands flowable.  Concerns about leaks were also a factor. The case has been appealed to a higher court.

Even so, reversing the flow would be a costly measure involving replacement and reactivation of some pumping stations and replacement of some or all of the pipe itself. There were once three active parallel pipes. A 12 inch pipe was decommissioned in 1982 and an 18 inch pipe in 2011. The remaining pipe is 24 inches in diameter.


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