Blame cokers. Or light crude. Or the rising price of oil.
Either way, Pierce County has run out of asphalt.
The county announced Tuesday it was canceling preventative chipsealing maintenance of 48 lane miles of roads because of a shortage of liquid asphalt. Its supplier, Albina Asphalt Products of Vancouver, Wash., ran out of the product earlier this month after a halt in manufacturing at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes.
It had originally planned to chipseal 70 lane miles throughout the unincorporated areas, Lakewood, University Place and Edgewood. The county said no other regional sources are available, and almost all of its 3,100 lane miles are made of asphalt, making most alternative methods unfeasible.
The county is divided into four road districts, and only the Purdy district completed the maintenance.
"That leaves Districts 1, 2 and 3 without getting a surface treatment," said Paul Marsh, a superintendent in the road operations division of the public works and utilities department. "That’s everything west of the (Narrows) Bridge."
The problem isn’t just limited to Pierce County: Clallam, Jefferson and Lewis counties all count Albina as their provider of asphalt. And it’s part of a bigger national concern. The price of asphalt – a byproduct of oil – is skyrocketing. Two years ago, the county was paying about $270 per ton for both hot-mix and liquid asphalt. When the supply ran dry earlier this month, the price had jumped to $660 per ton.
Next year’s projections, Marsh said, put the price at $800-1,000 per ton – if any is available.
Albina, which won a one-year contract to provide the country with asphalt, notified its customers July 21. The only other supplier in the region, U.S. Oil, is already operating at capacity and can’t handle any expansion, Marsh said.
This problem has been brewing for years, Albina operations manager Edwin Winter said.
Refineries are looking for ways to maximize profit in an age of booming oil prices, and a convergence of several factors led to the local asphalt crunch – most notably the installation of coker units at local refineries.
Cokers, as they’re commonly known, heat asphalt to several thousand degrees to extract the last remaining bits of gasoline trapped inside the sludge. The remaining product, coke, is then shipped overseas, where it can be used as a fuel source.
Refineries have also switched to a lighter crude of oil, meaning far less asphalt remains after the refining process.
"We knew the cokers were coming online and that would impact us," Winter said, "but the double-whammy we got this summer was the cokers coming online and all the refineries moving to lighter crude."
Albina still has some asphalt product, he said, but not the grade the counties rely upon for chipsealing.
Pierce County is considering using recycled asphalt and sealer made from recycled rubber tires for paving, but neither product is suitable for chipsealing. And maintenance is important, Marsh said, because patching or replacing a roadway costs about 10 times as much as maintaining it.
The asphalt shortage and booming cost don’t appear to be temporary problems, meaning Pierce County could struggle to maintain its roads in the future.
"It’s going to be rough going forward," Winter said. "Prices will definitely be higher; that isn’t an anomaly. This is the norm for the future."