Remembering Frank King, 1936-2018

Posted by on May 11, 2021 in Brian's Blog, Friendship | Comments Off on Remembering Frank King, 1936-2018

He is rightly remembered, of course, as one of the key individuals responsible for bringing the Winter Olympics to Calgary in 1988. But Frank King should also be remembered for another signature achievement: bringing Calgary a needed gasoline refinery in 1980.

King had been working in the oil and gas industry since 1958, when he graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in chemical engineering. His involvement with the refinery project began seventeen years later, when he became vice-president of manufacturing for Turbo Resources.

Turbo was a Canadian success story. Founded by Bob Brawn, King’s old high school buddy and university classmate, it had grown from a bankrupt oil recycling plant into a diversified company with three hundred service stations, the country’s largest drilling rig rental outfit, and an impressive array of manufacturing, marketing, exploration, trucking and real estate operations. The only thing preventing it from becoming a fully integrated ground-to-pump operation was a slightly embarrassing dependency on the major oil companies for its gasoline supplies.

Frank King

King had been telling Brawn for years that Turbo needed to have its own refinery “or else the majors will just bully you forever.” Brawn’s response: “Well, if you’re so convinced, why don’t you just come over and help me do it?” So King did. In 1975, he joined Turbo, drawing upon his experience as co-founder of a successful Canadian company that had designed and built natural gas processing plants under the auspices of the Ralph M. Parsons Company, a major California engineering and construction company.

In 1976, Turbo applied for a provincial industrial development permit to turn its Edmonton oil recycling plant into a $25 million “luberefinery” that would combine lubricant recycling with gasoline manufacturing. The Lougheed government rejected the application. Why? Because the Alberta Energy Corporation (AEC), which was 50 percent owned by the province, wanted to build a benzene plant in Edmonton that would require the gasoline feedstock Turbo needed for its proposed refinery, and the AEC was given priority.

Being told that Turbo would have to wait in line behind the AEC for a permit did not sit well with King. “After spending $1 million on engineering, and hours debating with Alberta Energy and the province, we had no choice but to give up,” he said. As an alternative, he proposed a plan that would unite Turbo’s ambitions with those of the government. It called for an Edmonton-based refinery that would produce a tailor-made feedstock for benzene and leave enough gasoline feedstock for Turbo’s own use. But after two more years of haggling, that project too was shelved. “It was completely logical,” said King, “but impossible to pull off because it required the cooperation of too many parties.”

Turbo’s plans for building a refinery remained on hold for the next four years. Then King played his trump card. In 1980, he applied to build a $200 million refinery for Turbo on the northern outskirts of Calgary – not far from where the Crossiron Mills shopping centre stands today – close to the former railway community of Balzac.

The Calgary area didn’t have a gasoline refinery, and the project was quickly approved by the provincial regulatory authorities. The plan was to build it over a two-year period and run it at maximum capacity – 30,000 barrels per day – when it opened in 1982. The dream had finally come true. Turbo was now playing in the same league as Gulf, Shell, Imperial and Texaco. The crude oil that Turbo’s drilling rigs unearthed would be refined at a Turbo refinery and then sold at Turbo service stations located from Vancouver to Toronto.

The refinery ran for ten years. During that time, King left Turbo to become chair of the Olympics organizing committee and Turbo fell upon hard times. He returned in 1991 to help find a solution to Turbo’s financial problems, and negotiated a sale of the company to Pay Less Holdings, a discount gasoline retailer in Victoria. At that point, in 1992, the refinery was running at less than two-thirds of capacity. Pay Less soon closed it on grounds that refining on a small scale was no longer profitable. King quit as Turbo president and moved on to other things. “My job is complete,” he said. But there was a tinge of regret.

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Copyright 2018 Brian Brennan - Author