Partners down the pipeline: In Sarnia when industry works, everyone works

Region marks completion of $2 billion NOVA Chemicals expansion

By Deborah Jaremko
Sarnia, Ontario Mayor Mike Bradley in his office at City Hall on January 31, 2023. Photo by Peter Power for Canadian Energy Centre

After more than five years of development, a $2 billion petrochemical expansion is starting up near Sarnia, Ontario.  

The project shows how important industry is to thousands of people in the region, and it’s an example of the kind of major project residents fear could be lost in the federal government’s Just Transition, says Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley.  

“When the trades work in Sarnia, the community works. Every aspect of the business community gets a positive impact,” he says.  

“For two or three years, all the trades here were working, which is a huge impact. The hope is that out of that plant, other auxiliary operations will come.”   

Calgary-based NOVA Chemicals is the largest private employer in the Sarnia-Lambton region. Late last year the company completed construction of a new polyethylene facility and ethylene cracker expansion.  

Derived from natural gas, polyethylene is used in numerous plastic products from food packaging and liners to truck mud guards, kayaks and canoes.

NOVA’s expansion increases its polyethylene production capacity in the region by more than 75 per cent, to about 2.6 billion pounds per year.     

Construction involved more than 7,000 workers and created 150 permanent full-time jobs, the company says. That’s not unusual for the Sarnia region, says Bradley.  

“In a city of 75,000 to 80,000, we have 5,000 construction workers who are constantly upgrading the plants and building new ones,” he says.  

“Just like in Alberta, they have good paying jobs connected to the industry. They’re very concerned and that gets overlooked. At the other end of the pipeline, we’re partners on this.” 

In addition to jobs in energy, agriculture and transportation, the federal government’s Just Transition plan to reduce emissions is expected to cause “significant labour market disruptions” in building trades and manufacturing.  

“The industry itself is not, I believe, understood by governments for its added value to what it does,” Bradley says.  

“You couldn’t make a car in this country without petrochemicals. You simply can’t. And in Sarnia we not only manufacture the gasoline, we make the carbon black for the tires, [and] we make the plastics. So if anyone talks about rushing ahead, they should take a good look at what would be lost.” 

The Sarnia region is adopting new energy and technology, he says, through initiatives like the Bioindustrial Innovation Centre, an industrial cleantech accelerator. And local government is “pushing hard” to attract large hydrogen facilities.    

“We’ve been designated as a hydrogen hub because we make it here and we have all the things to do it, and I know Alberta is moving in the same direction,” Bradley says.  

“We’re not standing back and saying don’t change anything,” he says.

“Don’t rush this, do this right. And do it based on science. Don’t do it based on politics.” 

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