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Native View: Husky Refinery not missed; can remain out of service

From the column: "Demand for gasoline and diesel will not disappear overnight, but it will drop. As this happens, small oil refineries will become uneconomic. Superior is ahead of the curve because the refinery killed itself. Time to move on."

Husky refinery
The Husky Energy refinery burns as seen in this aerial photo Aug. 26, 2018. file / News Tribune
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The Husky Refinery has been crippled for more than three years now. Raise your hand: Who’s noticed it’s been gone? No doubt its former employees, shareholders, some local businesses, and tax collectors, but the average driver? Despite lots of worries about the price of gasoline going up and all sorts of catastrophic economic impacts, we are OK. Supply chains adjusted to move fuel from much larger and more efficient refineries to local markets.

What if the Superior refinery never opened again? We should get used to the idea.

Starting more than 100 years ago, motor vehicles began to replace horses and within a couple of decades became the major form of transportation. Now, electric vehicles are taking over, not just because they are “green” but because the auto industry understands they will be faster and cheaper to build. The drivetrain in a gas or diesel vehicle typically has over 2,000 moving parts, whereas electric vehicle drivetrains typically have fewer than 100, significantly simplifying supply chains and manufacturing. As battery and other electric-vehicle components drop in price and improve in performance, electric vehicles will be cheaper to buy than gasoline and diesel cars. No car maker wants to be stuck with yesterday’s higher-priced technology.

Disruptive technologies change the world. Lightning, the new electric Ford F-150, is flying out of the plant, and 450 new workers were hired to assemble it in Dearborn, Michigan. Chevy just started selling its electric Silverado with a 400-mile range, all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering for tight corners, and motors so small the area under the hood is a trunk for your stuff. Indeed, American cars are being reborn, and they are electric.

Then there’s the question of whether the Husky Refinery’s current owner, Cenovus, can afford to rebuild it. In November, Bloomberg reported that Cenovus sold off its Husky gas stations and shale oil assets in an effort to cut debt. Cenovus stock price peaked at just under $40 per share in 2011 and now is under $14. While the rest of the stock market boomed, Cenovus crashed. Given shrinking petroleum demand, does it make sense for Cenovus to fix up this old refinery?

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Obviously, demand for gasoline and diesel will not disappear overnight, but it will drop. As this happens, small oil refineries will become uneconomic. Superior is ahead of the curve because the refinery killed itself. Time to move on.

An important benefit from permanently closing the refinery is cleaner air and a safer city. When the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking unit exploded, we were fortunate, because the explosion didn’t rupture the refinery’s hydrogen fluoride tank that was just 150 feet away. A rupture of the hydrogen fluoride tank would have put 180,000 people at risk. Hydrogen fluoride is lethal when inhaled and on contact causes severe burns, fluid buildup in the lungs, swelling of lung tissue, and more nasty stuff.

A “kill zone” is an area where citizens would not have time to evacuate in under 10 minutes, which is the time it would take for a full tank of hydrogen fluoride to be released into surrounding neighborhoods. But a rupture of a hydrogen fluoride tank could impact a much larger area called a “vulnerability zone” that extends 11 miles from a refinery. This is the area around the refinery where a ground-hugging vapor cloud of hydrogen fluoride could travel, impacting everything that lives in its path.

Leave the refinery closed; it’s dirty, old-fashioned stuff. Superior should support new, clean, innovative businesses and not look back.

Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She has written six books on environmental and Native American issues and is executive director of Honor the Earth (honorearth.org), a national Native American environmental foundation.

Winona LaDuke.jpg
Winona LaDuke

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