A little-known cargo out of Duluth-Superior enjoyed a momentous start to June, as petroleum coke left the port in ways it hasn’t in a generation.

Twenty-thousand-ton loads of petcoke, as it’s commonly known, left the Twin Ports aboard oceangoing ships four times between June 2-8.

For Midwest Energy Resources Company, which owns and operates the coal terminal at 2400 Winter St. in Superior, the appearance of foreign ships to load petcoke was a sight worthy of a double-take.

“It’s been over two decades since we’ve had a saltie at the terminal,” said MERC president Jeff Papineau. “One of our customers found an opportunity that required those salties and we were more than happy to give it a try. It was a fun change of pace for us.”

According to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, MERC hasn't seen an oceangoing ship at its dock since the 1990s.

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While salties visiting MERC and petcoke exports from Duluth-Superior are rare, several other ports on the Great Lakes frequently handle petcoke.

MERC, itself, even keeps two stockpiles of petcoke used by domestic, steel-making customers farther down the Great Lakes.

“Petcoke business we’ve historically done,” Papineau called it.

Petcoke is a byproduct of the oil refining process and is used as a fuel for energy production.

“It arrives in the port of Duluth-Superior by rail in a pelletized form,” the Port Authority explained in an email, “making it very stable in transport.”

Petcoke is used to increase BTU levels, often when mixed with coal, in steel production, or cement kilns. It can sometimes be interchangeable with coal for those production processes.

Because it can be interchangeable, it is also a global competitor with coal, and is, therefore, affected by global production and consumption of both coal and petcoke.

The Federal Dart docked at CRH in Duluth. (Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / News Tribune)
The Federal Dart docked at CRH in Duluth. (Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / News Tribune)

The roster of vessels carrying petcoke out of the Twin Ports included three ships from the Canadian Fednav fleet of ships, including Federal Champlain, Federal Dart, and Federal Katsura. Taagborg was the fourth to carry petcoke bound overseas.

Another ocean-going vessel is scheduled to visit MERC for a load of petcoke again in early July, Papineau said.

“It was the first time we’ve moved petcoke into a saltie, and it was quite the experience,” Papineau said about the week-long rush. “We’re used to loading 1,000-footers a lot faster.”

He went on to explain that normally when the terminal loads coal or even petcoke onto a lake freighter, the loading doesn’t stop until the vessel is fully loaded. But the rate at which salties deballast their water is much slower, requiring crews to suspend loading halfway through for six to eight hours to allow the salties to finish deballasting.

It made for a completely new experience at the dock, and left Papineau to praise the crews.

“Our employees handled these vessels great,” he said. “Most of our employees had never loaded a saltie, or even been on one, but they did an awesome job.”

Shipping May 2020-21
Shipping May 2020-21

Petcoke tonnage figures are not recorded separately by the local Port Authority. Instead, petcoke figures are combined with coal, under a coal-and-coke heading. To date, shipments were rebounding from a pandemic-addled 2020 which saw a meager 5.4 million tons leave the Twin Ports.

Through May, 2021 has already yielded 1.7 million tons of coal and coke, including 648,000 tons in May — 10 times May 2020’s figure of 69,000 tons.

Asked about the terminal’s future in petcoke exports, Papineau said: “We’re hoping to do even more.”