by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: DARRYL SWAN - A train winds through Columbia County after unloading its cargo of crude oil at Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, an ethanol plant at Port Westward near Clatskanie, in January. Due to a declining ethanol market, the plant shifted its focus to oil and recently was purchased by fuel distributor Global Partners LLC.Caught in a declining market for its product, an ethanol plant in Clatskanie shifted its focus from producing ethanol to exporting crude oil last year, then announced Jan. 28 that a Massachusetts-based fuel distributor had signed an agreement to purchase the facility.

Global Partners LP expects the total purchase price of Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, located at Port Westward, to be approximately $95 million. According to Erik Slifka, the company’s president and CEO, Global plans to use the site, with its rail and deep water access, as a distribution point for oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota, opening up a hub for Global’s operations on the West Coast.

“From our origination hub in the Bakken region of North Dakota, we will now have destination assets on both coasts,” Slifka said. “This facility also creates a link between the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin and Pacific refiners.”

Patrick Trapp, executive director for the Port of St. Helens which owns the Port Westward land, anticipates Global will retain the 50 or so jobs currently provided at the plant, but is not sure if the company will keep the same people on or bring in new employees.

Global could not be reached for comment and Columbia Pacific, owned by Cascade Kelly Holdings, LLC (connected with Washington-based developer JH Kelly) deferred all questions to Global representatives.

Washington-based contractor JH Kelly originally built the $200 million plant, then purchased it out of bankruptcy in 2009 from Cascade Grain. JH Kelly invested $20 million into the plant, intending to make it profitable before selling it to any interested buyer, Trapp said.

However, Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery (formerly Cascade Grain) has not operated as an ethanol plant since 2009 although it was designed to produce up to 120 million gallons of ethanol a year. Various announcements from plant managers set the start date for February 2012, then delayed production to October 2012, said the plant’s general manager Dan Luckett.

Then the Port approved an expanded agreement of allowed uses for the plant’s 1,200-foot-long deep-draft dock last year. This opened up the opportunity to transport “liquid bulk” — such as crude oil — and the plant shifted its focus.

Since then, the plant has sent off five oil shipments on barges. The oil was brought to Port Westward in 14 to 15 matte-black unit trains, each 98 cars long, that wound slowly through Columbia County toward Clatskanie.

Trapp said Global could keep operations to this limit, but added, “They have the ability to go up, assuming they have the contracts.”

According to a press release, Global’s purchase has been approved by its board of directors. The company hopes to complete the purchase in the coming months.

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