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Northern Tier execs tour St. Paul Park refinery

Executives from Northern Tier Energy toured the St. Paul Park refinery last week. Local and state officials met with refinery representatives to discuss are gas prices, other issues related to the oil facility. (Bulletin file photo)

Executives from Northern Tier Energy last week toured the St. Paul Park refinery and met with local and state officials to discuss area gasoline prices and other issues related to the oil facility.

The meeting was both an opportunity for local representatives to interact with Northern Tier’s new chief executive officer, Dave Lamp, and to begin conversations about concerns relating to the refinery, said Gary Hanson, Northern Tier’s vice president of communications.

Earlier this year, Western Refining Inc., headquartered in El Paso, Texas, purchased Northern Tier’s controlling stake for roughly $775 million, adding refining capacity to its operation and direct access to crude oil in North Dakota’s Bakken field. Lamp said the buyout won’t have any effect on the Northern Tier brand or its name.

After a plant tour, local officials and Northern Tier executives met in a closed-door meeting, during which Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said “robust” conversation occurred.

“We had good conversation about (gas) pricing and the effect it has on the local economy,” he said. “They know it’s a privilege for them to have a permit to do the business they are doing in our community. But I think we made it clear that (gas prices are) a big issue.

“When you talk about what’s more talked about with me, it’s the gas prices.”

A 10-week review of local gas prices earlier this year by the Bulletin found that prices at Northern Tier-owned SuperAmerica pumps in south Washington County generally were higher than at stations in neighboring cities.

To address fuel-price disparities, Schoen introduced the “fair fuel prices” bill ahead of the 2014 legislative session. The bill proposed certain pricing regulations on companies that own both an oil refinery and nearby gas stations. It received a House committee hearing but was not passed; Northern Tier executives requested to discuss the issue with local legislators.

“We wanted these folks to know that the refinery’s neighbors need to be top priority,” Schoen said. “And these are the people who have to put up with the noise, the light, the smell the most. I think it’s time we do something to help them out.”

However, Hanson said because gas prices are based on competition, taxes and the cost of crude oil, he was unsure how the proposed fuel bill would affect the refinery’s ability to adjust gas prices.

Schoen said he will continue talking with Northern Tier throughout the year and if re-elected could reintroduce the bill again for the 2015 legislative session.

“They aren’t running a business right if they are not profitable,” Schoen said. “We all understand that, but we also can’t make our residents feel like they are being taken advantage of.”

As technologies change and upgrade, and with refinery maintenance turnarounds every four or five years, Northern Tier could see some expansion in the future, Hanson said.

During the June 24 tour, St. Paul Park Mayor Keith Franke asked about jobs and if the refinery had plans to bring in more workers, following the move of some office jobs to Woodbury in 2011.

Lamp said building contractors and crews needed for turnarounds bring in several hundred contract employees temporarily, adding that with better access to oil fields out west, “a few” jobs could be created in St. Paul Park.

“I don’t see any permanent jobs at the refinery increasing much,” Hanson said. “But, depending on the long-term scenario, I don’t see it changing too dramatically.”

Western Refining Inc. and Northern Tier Energy executives plan to conduct regular meetings with city and local officials to keep an “open line of communication,” Hanson said.

“There’s great potential between the two companies to share each other’s best practices and set a good example,” Hanson added. “We want to make this name more prominent and engage with our neighbors and leverage these best practices as best as we can.”