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A wave of optimism is sweeping through the prairies of Alberta in western Canada, as Strathcona County looks to establish itself as a major petrochemicals hub in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland

Andy Brice

By Andy Brice, ICIS

Strathcona County, located in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland and adjacent to Edmonton, is well known for its upstream oil and gas industry, and boasts an array of world scale production facilities.

Located in the heart of Canada’s fourth largest province, the burgeoning municipality has flourished these past few decades, drawing billions of dollars of investment.

Recent years may have left industry facing an increasingly competitive economic climate but Strathcona County has continued to thrive thanks to its unique location and access to vast natural resources.

Estimates suggest Alberta deposits contain some 3,400 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, 58bn bbl of natural gas liquids and 423bn bbl of oil.

Over 40 global companies have established themselves in the area, eager to capitalise on the low-cost feedstocks, established infrastructure and its highly-skilled labour pool. It is the country’s largest hydrocarbon processing region and home to 75% of the refining in Western Canada.

Yet a bold new direction is needed to ensure future success, says Gerald Gabinet, director, Economic Development and Tourism for Strathcona County. Diversification is key.

“We’ve had a commitment to heavy industry for the last 25 years. Strathcona County was originally founded as a supply hub for our local refineries but as we go forward, we’re looking to have value added goods here,” he says.

The world’s leading producers are starting to realise that Alberta is not just a great place to mine the resources but it is a great place to process them too, notes Gabinet.

“As we look to the future and the opportunities in a low-price oil environment, we’ve got to move down the value chain and look at the petrochemical business.

"As we look to the future and the opportunities in a low-price oil environment, we’ve got to move down the value chain" 

Gerald Gabinet - StrathconaGERALD GABINET
Director, Economic Development and Tourism, Strathcona County

“Right now we’re pretty firmly entrenched midstream and we’re hoping that with our foreign direct investment and diversification strategy, we’re going to be well positioned to take advantage of any investment from companies looking to invest in Alberta.”

Strathcona County
Strathcona County wants to become the destination of choice

LAND OF OPPORTUNITY

“People are starting to become more aware of what Strathcona County has to offer,” adds Sean McRitchie, manager industrial development, Economic Development and Tourism. “Our message is getting out there loud and clear: Alberta, Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, and specifically Strathcona County, is a very attractive market for chemicals.”

Yet until recently, the capital costs of building a greenfield facility had been prohibitive and, compared to other regions like the US Gulf Coast, it did not make economic sense.

“The tide has turned within the last 3-5 years and while that capital penalty still exists, the feedstock prices, volumes and availability we have here really help to offset that expense,” says McRitchie. “We’ve built enough benefits in the area to neutralise the capex and make it attractive for companies. This is a strong investment opportunity. We now have the infrastructure and the critical mass of industry both upstream and midstream. As far as chemicals go, we’re uniquely positioned.”

"We now have the infrastructure and the critical mass of industry both upstream and midstream. As far as chemicals go, we’re uniquely positioned" 

Sean McRitchie - StrathconaSEAN MCRITCHIE
Manager industrial development, Economic Development and Tourism, Strathcona County

Competitive tax rates, no business licence fees and the availability of pre-zoned and serviced heavy industrial land ensure the barriers to entry are low and offer a compelling argument to move to the region.

The provincial government has also lent support through its Petrochemical Diversification Program. The initiative, launched in November 2016, aims to encourage companies to invest in new petrochemical facilities and provides up to C$500m in royalty credits. These credits can be traded with oil and gas producers to offset royalty payments when they extract hydrocarbons.

Calgary-based Inter Pipeline was among the first recipients of the scheme, receiving C$200m for its proposed C$1.85bn propane dehydrogenation (PDH) facility. Strathcona County currently boasts the lowest price for propane in North America and the plant – the first of its kind in Canada – will make use of the huge surplus of the gas and convert it into high value propylene. Some 22,000bbl/day of propane will be processed and converted into the olefin, which will in turn be used as a feedstock for its neighbouring polypropylene (PP) plant.

The hope is this landmark project could well be the catalyst for similar downstream projects in the coming years, says McRitchie.

“If you’re looking for security and a sound place to invest, you’re certainly going to get that in Alberta. The resources, in addition to our judicial, legal and regulatory environment are all very stable and second to none,” he says.

Strathcona County also benefits from being a very pro-business community.

INNOVATIVE COLD CHAIN SOLUTION

Another development underway in the insulation area is a collaboration with equipment maker Cannon of Italy on a novel fridge technology that includes both polyurethane foam and assembly innovations. Known as PASCAL™ Technology, it claims to increase the energy efficiency of freezers and fridges without negatively affecting design or manufacturing productivity.

PASCAL is a two-component system that uses a vacuum process along with specially formulated polyurethane foam to fill the insulating cavity of the appliance cabinet. The combination of polyurethane formulation and vacuum system can fill the cabinet’s cavity in less time than standard processes, enabling an effective and consistent cavity filling without using more material.

The system can yield 10% greater energy efficiency and cut fill time by 20-30 seconds while also reducing demould time.

And in the durable area, Dow is focusing on development of high-performance composites using a polyurethane matrix and glass - or carbon-fibre reinforcement. This is still a relatively small but recently growing area for the polyurethane industry. Targeted application areas are the current domain of unsaturated polyester resin composites at the lower end of the performance range and epoxy resin composites at the higher end.

Says Dow’s Penrice, “Polyurethanes are a good material for high-end performance, offering greater flexibility in high-end applications.” Composites made with polyurethanes are characterised by their strength and durability and the fact that they can be produced using a number of technologies.

One of the drivers here, adds Andre Argenton, global R&D director of Performance Materials and Chemicals at Dow, is lightweighting, which feeds back directly to the quest for energy efficiency in many potential applications in, say, automotive and aerospace. “Use of polyurethanes in composites is critical – we are growing a lot here, using new and traditional chemistries.”

COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Liaising with the public and keeping everyone abreast of upcoming developments ensures there are fewer hurdles to overcome when it comes to planning applications and new projects. Raising awareness about the importance of the industry with the locals and the innumerable benefits to their standard of living ensures a positive and productive environment, he says.

“Social licence exists here in a significant way,” notes McRitchie. “The people of Strathcona County and Alberta understand that their quality of life is very closely linked to the energy industry. It employs a good proportion of the labour force and everyone is touched by it in some way. Alberta is wholly known as Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing region.”

Having several world-class education and training institutions on its doorstep also helps drive the sector and facilitate growth, ensuring a continuous flow of top young talent, he adds.

The University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering is ranked among the best on the continent and within the Top 100 institutions globally. The nearby MacEwan University also provides a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, while the pool of talent is further boosted by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology polytechnic and its strong emphasis on the energy sector. Many of its students are enrolled on programmes vital for the industry such as instrumentation, power engineering, and fluid mechanics, for example.

Strathcona County Infrastructure Map

“Over the last several decades, our educational institutions have worked collaboratively with the energy industry to develop a highly skilled and well-trained workforce. Within a 45 minute drive in any direction you probably have 30,000 skilled labourers at your disposal.” adds McRitchie. “Our hope is that all these planned projects will develop in phases that will allow our skilled labour to remain in the region.

PETCHEM FOCUS FOR STRATHCONA COUNTY AND ALBERTA’S INDUSTRIAL HEARTLAND

FORMED IN 1998, Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association is a non-profit organisation consisting of five municipalities and three associate members. Its mission is to encourage sustainable development in the region and ensure suitable infrastructure and planning is in place for prospective tenants.

Strathcona County, situated in the greater Edmonton area, is one of the founding members of the association and at 194km2 spans a third of AIH’s total 592km2 area.

Mark Plamondon, the association’s executive director, says the region’s abundant resources, skilled labour force and the strategic vision of the board are major contributory factors to the Heartland’s success and have helped it cement its position as prime location for industry.

Growth has been phenomenal since its inception in the 1950s, attracting over C$30bn of investment.

“AIH is focused on growing and strengthening the Industrial Heartland, and Strathcona County is a critical component of achieving that,” he says. “Ours is a collaborative approach to economic development, primarily of the petrochemical and hydrocarbon processing industries to attract global investment.”

Roxanne Carr, mayor of Strathcona County is confident the area can compete with other clusters globally. From the advantaged feedstocks, low-priced utilities and pre-zoned land to the specialised workforce and its leading educational institutions, she says Strathcona County is perfectly positioned to be the destination of choice for the petrochemical sector moving forward.

“Our goal is to create Canada’s most liveable community, which requires high paying jobs and a solid tax base - something we presently enjoy primarily because of the strength of our hydrocarbon processing and petrochemical sectors,” adds Carr. “We continue to realize this vision by attracting organizations that rely on our existing petrochemical supply chain and have high potential for growth.

“The global market has become more competitive in our current environment, which increases the need for us to be more active - which we do by diversifying within our areas of strength, such as adding manufacturers further down the supply chain.”

Plamondon agrees: “With the commodity price cycle for oil and gas, Alberta has historically been a boom or bust region, so we recognise the need to diversify into petrochemicals.

“It’s a natural move as it’s counter cyclical to the oil and gas industry; petrochemicals are competitively advantaged when you have a low-priced feedstock so it’s a real advantage to this area to move downstream. We’re excited about growing and strengthening our association, and about continuing to develop the Industrial Heartland.”