Hewers of wood and drawers of water is the oft-repeated narrative used to describe Canada’s historical reliance on natural resources. It is true that Canada has been, and continues to be, dependent upon the land’s natural bounty: oil and gas, coal, hydropower, fish, forestry, silver, copper, gold, diamonds, molybdenum, potash and rare earth elements. Yet, over the decades, the country also developed the infrastructure and expertise to transform these raw materials into value-added wealth streams. 

Gordon Paterson checking gasoline­ samples for the presence of sulphur­ at the Imperial Oil refinery in Sarnia, circa 1933-34.

Gordon Paterson checking gasoline­ samples for the presence of sulphur­ at the Imperial Oil refinery in Sarnia, circa 1933-34. Photo credit: Glenbow Archives  11-1-4

One of the country’s most highly developed industries, which expanded in concert with the growth of that most distinctly Canadian natural resource — oil and gas — was Sarnia’s Chemical Valley in Lambton County in southwestern Ontario, the epicentre of Canada’s petrochemical sector.  

Before the development of this industry, organic chemicals were mainly derived from coal, plant or animal-based materials. Wood was the basis for methanol and acetic acid. Coal, meanwhile, produced aromatics like benzene, toluene, naphthalene and ammonia, as described in the 1958 article, “Petrochemicals in Canada” published in Chemicals in Canada, the predecessor of the Canadian Chemical News

Petrochemicals elbowed out wood and coal-derived chemicals, ending up in an array of consumer and industrial products, from rubber to fertilizers, solvents, plastics, paint and textiles — the artifacts of the 20th century’s vast technological and consumer edifice. Sarnia’s Chemical Valley in southern Ontario became the heartland of this vibrant sector of the Canadian economy. 

The area now known as Sarnia has long been the home of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. When European settlement began in the 1830s, the economy was primarily based upon hardwood lumber like oak, ash and elm. Sitting on the east bank of the St. Clair River, just south of where it receives the flow of Lake Huron, the area was also one of the world’s greatest inland shipping routes.

Then, in 1855, asphalt producer James Miller Williams entered the refining petroleum business, unexpectedly striking oil three years later while digging for water. His discovery ushered in the Age of Petroleum, triggering the first North American oil rush to what became known as Oil Springs. In 1858 the Sarnia Observer wrote that oil “seems to abound over a considerable tract of land where it was discovered; and in fact that earth is so saturated by it, so that a hole dug 8 or 10 feet in width and the same depth, will collect from 200 to 250 gallons a day, the supply seemingly inexhaustible.”

It’s a gusher! 

Later, in 1862, John Shaw discovered a gusher that brought in 3,000 barrels of oil a day and flooded nearby creeks and rivers, according to E. R. Rowzee’s 1950 article “Sarnia, the birthplace of Canada’s petrochemical industry” in Chemistry in Canada. By 1864 there were 27 refineries around Oil Springs and the nearby community of Petrolia. Refineries were also located in Hamilton, Woodstock and London, recovering mainly kerosene, which was used as a fuel for stationary engines and as a cleaning agent. Gasoline was a byproduct. Early refining methods were basic. According to R. W. Ford, who wrote “History of the Chemical Industry in Lambton County” in 1987 for the Sarnia Historical Society, a refinery in the mid 19th century consisted of “a large black iron pot with a source of heat underneath and a condenser for recovering the fluids that boiled off.” 

Refineries were erected in Sarnia too, with the St. Clair River providing water for factory cooling. In 1871, the Dominion Oil Company built a refinery. In 1896, it was rebuilt and operated by the Bushnell Oil Company, which became Imperial Oil one year later. The company laid claim to the boast of being the largest oil refinery in the British Empire.

Refinery technology improved and processes produced hydrocarbon mixtures that were suitable for petrochemical feedstock. However, the principal products continued to be kerosene, lubricating oils, waxes, gas and fuel oils and candles. Still, the nascent auto industry wasn’t far away. In 1904, the Ford Motor Company of Canada was established and, by 1913, about 50,000 motor vehicles were traversing Canadian roadways. From 1918-1923, Canada became the world’s second-largest auto producer, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Petroleum wasn’t the only feedstock. Southwestern Ontario sits on a huge salt bed that lies about 450 to 600 metres below the surface. Salt is a key ingredient in many industrial chemicals, including chlorine, sodium carbonate, liquid sodium for use in coolants and hydrochloric acid. Dominion Salt, which later became Sifto Salt, mined this mineral from 1903 until the early 1960s, according to Ford’s Sarnia Historical Society article.

As Rowzee described in his Chemistry in Canada story about Sarnia’s petrochemical industry, developments during the early 20th century continued apace, embracing the solvent dewaxing of lubrication oils and adoption of the suspensoid cracking process at Imperial’s Sarnia refinery. Additional innovations included the development of fluid catalytic cracking and the application of the processes of polymerization, isomerization and alkylation to improve petroleum products — especially as the demand for top-grade products escalated during the Second World War. 

The general chemical laboratory at the Imperial Oil refinery at Sarnia, circa 1933-34. Researchers examine­ the oils for chemical defects and run special tests to determine lubrication properties.

The general chemical laboratory at the Imperial Oil refinery at Sarnia, circa 1933-34. Researchers examine­ the oils for chemical defects and run special tests to determine lubrication properties. Photo credit: Glenbow Archives  11-1-2

Isoprene and the war effort­

The Second World War was truly “the catalyst for the petrochemical industry,” says Bernard West, a chemical engineer and former chair of the Chemical Institute of Canada, who worked in Sarnia with Rhone-Poulenc, Imperial Oil and Polymer Corp. Isoprene — the monomer that forms the basis of natural rubber — had been isolated as early as the 1860s and by 1875, scientists in both Britain and France had discovered that isoprene could be polymerized. In the following decades, groups in Germany, Russia and the US experimented with various forms of synthetic rubber but natural rubber — cheap and abundant — remained in common use. 

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, two years after the start of the Second World War, Japan attacked Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. Singapore also fell to the Japanese, placing 90 percent of natural latex rubber-production capacity under control of the Axis powers. Suddenly, the Allied war effort was in jeopardy. In February 1942, Polymer Corp., a Crown corporation, was created with a mandate to build and operate an integrated synthetic rubber operation, wrote Rowzee, who was a manager at Polymer Corp. in 1950 when he wrote his Chemistry in Canada story. Sarnia was chosen as the location for the $50 million plant, built by Dow Chemical. It was located near the St. Clair river water for cooling but also close to the only refinery that could supply the requirements for petroleum cracked gases and take back residual hydrocarbons. Other refineries supplied benzene and coal for the generation of steam and power. Although it took 14 months after the start of construction before rubber was produced, the success of these highly integrated plants and the rapid growth of the synthetic rubber industry became “one of the great chemical achievements of all time,” Rowzee wrote.

Second World War hostilities ended in September 1945. A radically altered world was ready to embrace evolving technological advances. Sarnia’s petrochemical industry ramped up, with an Enbridge pipeline delivering oil from Alberta for feedstock. The highly efficient Great Lakes shipping network became the conduit for exporting these products. DuPont built a polyethylene plant, while C-I-L constructed an ammonia and fertilizer plant. 

By 1963, Polymer Corp. was producing 10 percent of the world’s synthetic rubber. The 1950s and 1960s were, in essence, the golden age of Chemical Valley, says West, with Sarnians boasting the highest standard of living in Canada. In keeping with its contribution to the Canadian economy, Polymer Corp. was honoured in 1971 with an image of its industrial facility on the back of the Canadian $10 bill.

Oil prices soar 

Then, an oil embargo by Arab petroleum-producing states shook global markets. Prices shot up; crude rose from $3 a barrel in 1973 to $12 a barrel by 1974. Sarnia adapted to the new challenges. Several companies: Polymer Corp. (later Polysar), DuPont and Union Carbide, along with the Canada Development Corporation, created Petrosar — now famous as NOVA Chemicals’ Corunna site, according to a 2003 article in the Sarnia Observer by Scott Stephenson. Union Carbide also built a polyethylene plant, DuPont doubled the capacity of its polyethylene plant and Shell Chemical started to produce isopropyl alcohol and polypropylene plastic, Stephenson wrote. 

Aerial view of the petrochemical plant at the Imperial Oil refinery in 1964.

Aerial view of the petrochemical plant at the Imperial Oil refinery in 1964. Photo credit: Glenbow Archives  10a-36-6

From oil-based feedstocks to biomass

Eventually, however, by the late 1980s to 1990s, refineries in Sarnia began to close due largely to increased automation and outsourcing. A TransAlta pipeline bringing ethylene from Alberta was shut down. This, says West, was another major catalyst, causing Dow Chemical in Sarnia to permanently lock the factory gates. In order to stop further decline in the petrochemical industry, West and fellow board members of the Canadian Chemical Producers Association realized in the early part of the new millennium that action was needed. They decided to “look at how we could protect what is in Sarnia and see if we could figure out how to get it to grow again. There is a nice infrastructure ecosystem there, not only plants but maintenance and testing companies.” This initiative, says West, planted the seeds for a shift in thinking and a move from oil-based feedstocks to ones based on biomass. 

Today, the Sarnia-Lambton Petrochemical and Refining Complex still has 19 petrochemical plants that continue to produce products made from crude oil, natural gas, natural gas liquids and ethane that is brought in via pipeline. As West says, “the fossil-fuel industry is not going to disappear overnight. There are just too many drivers that affect it — too many people who rely upon the products that come out of that industry.” Nonetheless, several factors, from increasing efficiencies that translate into fewer workers to growing consumer demand for sustainable products, as well as the spectre of climate change, mean Sarnia will have to be flexible and continue to evolve technologically, chemically and economically in 
the future.  

City of Lights 

Sarnia may have been the epicentre of the petrochemical industry but Shawinigan, Que. was the heart of the electrochemical sector.

Located at the Saint-Maurice River in southwestern Quebec, Shawinigan was the centre for both the province’s chemical industry and industrialization at the turn of the 20th century. Spectacular 50-metre-high falls gave the community its name and powered hydroelectric power plants built by the Shawinigan Water & Power Company (SW&P). Drawn by cheap electricity, Belgo-Canadian Pulp moved to Shawinigan in 1900, followed one year later by Pittsburg Reduction (Alcan) and Carbure Company­ of Shawinigan (Shawinigan Chemicals) in 1903, according to The Canadian­ Encyclopedia­. 

Shawinigan saw many national firsts: it was the first to produce aluminum in 1901 and the first to produce carborundum in 1908. It was also the first city in Quebec to have electric street lights, earning it the moniker “City of Lights.” 

During the First World War, SW&P produced acetone, which was used as a solvent to manufacture cordite, a component needed as a propellant in shells and bullets. After the war, research focused on developing chemicals for civilian use, including vinyl resins for use in plastics and adhesives. 

Shawinigan Chemicals, an amalgamation of Canadian Electro Products and Canada Carbide, was the city’s flagship company. During the Second World War, it produced the explosive 1,3,5-trinitroperhydro-1,3,5-triazine, called RDX, more powerful than TNT (2,4,6-trinitrotoluene). The company also made plastics, stainless steel and alloys for use in the mining and metallurgical industries. Over the next decades, Shawinigan Chemicals bought or entered into joint ventures with chemical manufacturing and marketing companies from around the world. It was bought out in the mid-1960s by Gulf Oil Corp., later renamed Gulf Oil Canada Ltd.

The 1960s saw a marked decline in the electrochemical industry. Today the city is focused on diversifying into areas like green technologies, software development and metal and mineral processing. 

Rise of Sarnia’s bioeconomy 

Murray McLaughlin

Murray McLaughlin

Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC), which was first formed in 2008, is located at Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park on the grounds of the former Dow Chemical headquarters. It partners with Western University and the City of Sarnia to develop alternative energy technologies and industrial bio-products, forming a cluster of about 10 biochemistry companies as a complement to the petrochemical economy. 

Former executive director of BIC, Murray McLaughlin, who once served as Saskatchewan’s deputy minister for agriculture, says that its mandate is to facilitate commercialization of a world-scale hybrid chemistry cluster. This, McLaughlin says, is the development of bio-based chemical innovation that focuses on green technologies — building a sustainable industry around the petrochemical plants. “We’re not displacing the petroleum industry,” says McLaughlin. “We’re there to complement it.” 

McLaughlin says that having a bio-based industry in place is helping reduce greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions among all 19 petrochemical companies in Chemical Valley. He points to BioAmber, which uses plant-based sugars to make succinic acid in lieu of petroleum-based succinic acid. This compound is used in a range of products, including paints and coatings, adhesives, sealants, food additives, cosmetics phthalate-free plasticizers and pharmaceutical compounds, among others.  

Since petrochemical industry jobs are declining, due largely to improved data capabilities and computerization, a bio-based cluster presents new alternatives, creating new industries, jobs and growing the community, says McLaughlin. This includes supporting local agriculture. Another company in Sarnia, Comet Biorefining, will be building a sugar mill using corn stover and wheat straw as a feedstock. McLaughlin says that this creates a new income stream for farmers who have formed Cellulosic Sugar Producers Co-op (CSPC) to look after the harvesting and transportation of the stover, which is the leftover stalks, leaves and corn cobs following harvest. The waste is made into sugar, which in turn is used by companies like BioAmber to make succinic acid and other bio-based chemicals such as adipic acid. Comet’s technology will change waste feedstock — underutilized due to a lack of conversion technologies — into a valuable new commodity. “It positions biomaterials to become competitive alternatives to petroleum-based products,” McLaughlin says.

McLaughlin points to the growth of hybrid products that are made by blending a bio-based material and a petrochemical. One example is Woodbridge Foam’s car seats, once entirely petroleum-based but now almost 20 percent soybean oil.  

Ultimately, says McLaughlin, the creation and increased use of hybrid products will not only keep Sarnia-Lambton relevant as an economic driver in Canada but help mitigate climate change. “If we could reduce the utilization of petroleum by 50 percent and extend the life cycle of petroleum by that same amount, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a huge amount.”