Nfld. & Labrador

New Come By Chance CEO says refashioned refinery will be a leader in decarbonization effort

The new head of the company leading an expensive and unique conversion at the Come By Chance refinery is predicting the facility will be a leader in efforts to lower carbon emissions in the global transportation sector.

Frank Almaraz, in first interview as head of Braya Renewable Fuels, says conversion on time and on budget

The Come By Chance refinery, seen here in September, is being converted into a renewable fuels facility, with plant-based oils and animal fats being refined into diesel and aviation fuel. Production is set to begin in late summer or early fall. (CBC)

The new chief executive officer for the company leading an expensive and unique conversion at the Come By Chance refinery in Newfoundland and Labrador is predicting the facility will become a leader in efforts to lower carbon emissions in the global transportation sector.

Frank Almaraz is also confident that the 200 full-time jobs that will be required to operate the facility will be long-term and stable positions.

"It's going really, really well," Almaraz said during an interview Wednesday from Dallas.

A new leadership structure for the Placentia Bay operation was communicated to employees Wednesday morning, the latest step in an effort to transform the half-century-old facility into a refinery that will produce aviation and diesel fuel made from plant-based waste oils and animal fats.

In production by late summer, early fall

The former North Atlantic refinery has been rebranded as Braya Renewable Fuels following a deal late last year that saw a U.S.-based private equity firm called Cresta Fund Management acquire a majority ownership.

The previous owner, New York-based Silverpeak, has retained a significant minority interest.

Almaraz said the plan is to reopen the refinery by late summer or early fall, with a daily output of up to 18,000 barrels of what Braya calls renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel. 

Frank Almarez is the new CEO for Braya Renewable Fuels, the new company formed following the takeover late last year of North Atlantic refining by a Dallas-based private equity fund known as Cresta. (Zoom)

Some $300 million US has been budgeted for the conversion, and Almaraz said the process is on time and on budget. He said the focus is on engineering and design, and the plan is to intensify the retooling process when weather conditions improve.

"That process is being timed so that when weather is a little bit better, we can be really effective and go to work," he said.

'A real exciting opportunity'

Almarez said Braya has secured enough raw material from suppliers in South America for early production in Come By Chance, and that company officials are in talks with others for long-term supply contracts of canola, soybeans, used cooking oils and rendered animal fats known as tallow.

He said those products will be refined into low-emission fuels and used to fuel airplanes and long-haul trucks.

The raw material will be transported to Placentia Bay by ship, and the refined fuels will be transported to markets in Canada, the United States and Europe in the same way, said Almarez.

"It's a real exciting opportunity to decarbonize a sector of the economy," he said.

"You cannot easily electrify long-haul trucking or air transportation, and hydrogen as a fuel for those purposes seems a long way off because of infrastructure needs, and renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel are available today … to reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions."

A growing market

Almaraz described the renewable fuel market as "extraordinary," with a growing number of projects similar to Come By Chance being undertaken around the world.

But he said Come By Chance has an advantage because of its location, a marine terminal that allows for shipping to and from the site, and a skilled workforce with a reputation for safety and productivity.

"My prediction is that that facility is entering into a new chapter that's going to be very successful," he said. "It's a new chapter in the long, storied history of that refinery and the people that work there, the families that rely on it, and for the global transportation sector."

Second chance

The conversion marks a significant shift for the refinery, which previously produced up to 130,000 barrels per day of petroleum-based fuels.

Its owners predicted a bright future for the facility prior to the arrival of the global pandemic. But economic upheaval brought on by COVID-19 forced Silverpeak to idle the refinery in March 2020, and its future was thrown into doubt, with hundreds of employees losing their jobs.

Glenn Nolan, foreground, is president of United Steelworkers Local 9316, which represents unionized workers at the refinery in Come By Chance, Placentia Bay. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

At least two attempts to sell the refinery failed, and the provincial government was forced to inject millions in public money into the facility in order to keep critical components in idle mode as Silverpeak searched for a new partner.

Cresta emerged late last year as the successful suitor, but with a business plan more aligned with efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the era of climate change.

While there will be fewer jobs than in the past, union leaders representing workers at refinery say the mood is upbeat, and there's a sense of excitement.

"They're doing lots of hiring. It's a great project," said Glenn Nolan, president of Local 9316 of the United Steelworkers union.

Almaraz said it's unlikely the facility will ever again refine crude oil into fuels.

He said there's a very deliberate shift away from fossil fuels, and Braya is determined to play a role in decarbonizing commercial trucking and air transportation.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: Terry.Roberts@cbc.ca.

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