Tacoma oil refinery wants to produce renewable fuels for the first time

An oil refinery on Tacoma’s Tideflats is filing for permits to build a renewable energy project that will allow it to eventually produce biodiesel and biojet fuels.

U.S. Oil & Refining Co., located on 139 acres of privately owned land along the Blair Waterway, will need permission from the city for construction permits for processing ethanol and what it’s calling “next generation” fuels.

“Our whole goal is really to be the leader in renewable fuels, so it’s going to take years for our culture to get off of fossil fuels ...but we want to be really on the innovative cutting edge on renewable fuels,” said U.S. Oil spokeswoman Marcia Nielsen.

“This is not an expansion; these are just projects we want to put in place for next generation fuels. We’re looking at being able to produce biodiesel, biojet, which is kind of new in the marketplace. …

“We’re going to be producing and continuing on with normal fossil fuels, but our whole goal is to take our business long-term to a very green environment.”

At a time of heightened aversion to fossil fuel activities in Tacoma, some environmental groups are wary of the project. They’ve sounded the alarm on the project, and notified their followers.

At a public hearing Wednesday night on proposed temporary land-use rules for the Tideflats, several people brought up U.S. Oil’s recent project as a potential threat to their efforts to ban fossil fuel expansion in Tacoma.

With the permitting process in very early stages, the groups that became aware of the project acknowledged they had little information about it, because not much is available yet on the city’s website. The city’s planning department said it has not yet started reviewing the permits.

“They talk about ethanol quite a bit and talk about what they call next generation fuels quite a bit,” said Eric de Place, policy director at Sightline Institute, an environmental think tank. “Based on the text I saw it’s difficult to know what to make of it — almost every infrastructure project nowadays advertises itself as being green or environmentally beneficial.”

In explaining the project, Nielsen said that in coming years, as the trucking and aviation industries look to leave fossil fuels behind, U.S. Oil wants to be ready with a renewable product for them — biodiesel and biojet fuels, produced in Tacoma. She said the company hopes to begin construction on the project early next year.

“We need the industries and businesses to start moving in that direction, but we want to be ready to supply it to them when they’re ready to make that change,” she said.

“We’re not going to make such a huge quantity that it’s sitting in a tank and waiting. Once we’re capable of making it, then we’re going to go out and try to find some customers that are willing to move in that direction and we’ll supply their needs.”

While the company plans to continue its current level of fossil fuel processing, it has no plans to expand those operations, Nielsen said. The new project would be focused solely on renewables, she said.

Nielsen said U.S. Oil is doing what environmentalists have been calling for: In the last five years, it has reduced its carbon footprint by 25 percent, partly by making a substantial investment in being able to produce low-sulfur fuels.

The company plans to build three product transfer lines from the marine terminal to the refinery to transfer ethanol, renewable jet fuel and renewable diesel fuel products.

It also wants to install two ethanol unloading pumps and associated piping as well as two ethanol transfer pumps, and convert two storage tanks to ethanol service.

U.S. Oil wants to install a recovered oil line from the marine terminal back to the refinery at the same time to move recovered oil or slop oil — which doesn’t meet certain specifications — back to the refinery waste-treatment facility.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud