Sarnia-Lambton is ideally situated at the point where Lake Huron flows into the St. Clair River, the international boundary between Ontario and Michigan. It is one hour north of Detroit and three hours west of Toronto. The City of Port Huron, Michigan, lies just across the Blue Water Bridge, which connects Ontario’s 402 highway to U.S. I-94 and the US interstate system.
The father of Canada’s petroleum industry, James Miller Williams, discovered oil in Lambton County, Ontario in 1858 while digging for a water well. His discovery led to North America’s first commercial oil well in what would become known as the Village of Oil Springs. Originally called Black Creek, the Village of Oil Springs became a boom town overnight, and a North American oil rush was born. Black gold was on everyone’s mind, making Lambton County a name synonymous with discovery, opportunity and prosperity. Today, Lambton County remains the centre of Ontario’s refining and chemical industry and is viewed nationally as an energy hub. It is also a centre for advanced manufacturing and has an emerging creative industries sector. Oil Springs is a national historic site and home to the Oil Museum of Canada.
The middle of everywhere
Lambton County is comprised of eleven municipalities, the City of Sarnia being the largest. Marketed as Sarnia-Lambton, the area is still enjoying growth today, with a present population of around 130 000. Sarnia-Lambton is within a 24 hour drive of 141 million consumers. “We are Canada’s second busiest commercial border crossing into the U.S.,” says George Mallay. Mallay is the general manager of Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership (SLEP), a public-private sector corporation established in 1994. The Partnership brings together business, labour, local government, education and First Nations to set economic strategy and work to advance the local economy. The current Chair is Sarnia Mayor, Mike Bradley.
Located on the eastern shore of the St. Clair River, one of the world’s busiest inland waterways, the Port of Sarnia is the largest on Lake Huron and, “is very important to [our] chemical, fabrication and agricultural industries,” adds Mallay. The port functions as a seagoing avenue for cargo destined for national and international markets and is, therefore, crucial to Sarnia-Lambton’s economy. The port also provides year-round berthing, and ship repair and maintenance capabilities.
Sarnia-Lambton’s Chris Hadfield Airport offers daily flights to Toronto’s Pearson International, and London International Airport is only an hour away. Michigan’s Bishop International Airport and Detroit Metropolitan Airport are also just over an hour away. “We’re very well served in terms of air transportation,” says Mallay.
Industries in Sarnia-Lambton have access to efficient rail service provided by Canadian National Railway – the city’s major rail carrier – and CSX Transportation which provides rail and intermodal service to primary markets in the eastern U.S.
A thriving energy sector
Sarnia-Lambton has a rich history of knowledge in the petrochemical and refining industries and is home to three refineries: Suncor Energy, Shell Canada and Imperial Oil and a number of petro-chemical plants. “From the forties right up to the fifties and sixties, there was a lot of emphasis on the chemical industry here – traditional chemicals,” says Mallay. “Now what’s happening is we have a new renaissance where we have a focus in three feed stock areas: oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids, and biomass. We are building what we call a biohybrid chemistry complex.”
Mallay explains that, about a dozen years ago, the community started to move towards sustainable chemistry with an emphasis on renewable fuels and chemicals which it saw as an emerging area with strong growth potential. It brought the chemical and agricultural sectors together and there has been a lot of work completed on building new commercialization infrastructure, education, research and training facilities. “We still believe the oil industry is going to exist for another fifty to sixty years. We have seen natural gas playing more and more of an important role in chemicals and energy because it’s competitively priced and cleaner than coal,” shares Mallay.
The Union Gas Dawn storage complex (Dawn Hub), located in the Dawn-Euphemia Township of Lambton County is the second largest natural gas trading and storage hub in North America and the largest in Canada. “With the renaissance in shale gas, that has given us a low-cost stable feedstock advantage,” explains Mallay. Prices in 2018 are expected to be below Henry Hub as new pipelines bring additional gas from Marcellus and Utica gas basins.
Local firms are taking advantage of low cost gas and new players are looking at the area. Sarnia-Lambton’s petrochemical producer, Nova Chemicals, was originally a processor of crude-oil-based feedstock and now uses natural gas liquid feedstock, “having just converted all their St. Clair Township plants from naphtha to ethane.”
The area continues to see new investments in industrial bioproducts. Two of the largest include Suncor Energy’s local corn-ethanol plant, which is the largest in Canada, and BioAmber’s recently constructed $141 million bio-based succinic acid production facility. BioAmber looked at more than 100 candidate sites before selecting Sarnia.
A national organization headquartered in Sarnia, Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC) is working to making Sarnia-Lambton Canada’s first successful biohybrid chemical cluster. BIC has invested in a number of startups in the area and is working on building a cellulosic sugar plant.
There has been much discussion around the Keystone and Energy East pipelines to get oil from Alberta so it can be refined. However, the existing Enbridge pipeline to Sarnia has sufficient capacity to accommodate a new refinery. The local group through the Bowman Centre at the Sarnia-Lambton Western Research Park has a business case for a new Sarnia Advanced Bitumen Emissions Reduced Refinery which would use the latest technologies to address climate change issues.
The area has more than 100 engineering, fabrication, machining, environmental and industrial services firms. Over 30 of them have organized themselves into the Sarnia-Lambton Industrial Alliance (SLIA) and are focused on providing products and services to global markets.
In addition to the chemical industry, the area has large energy generating plants and new startup technologies that are scaling up to commercialization such as AVEtech Energy’s new atmospheric vortex engine and BioGenerator’s biobased fuel cell. Ubiquity Solar Inc. recently announced the launch of its advanced silicon materials pilot plant, a project designed “to validate its process to improve the performance and cost effectiveness of silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells using the proprietary SolarBrick™ technology,” says the Sarnia Observer. Sarnia-Lambton has the largest solar farm in Ontario – eighty megawatts on a thousand acres of land – along with smaller 20 MW solar farms. “We also have a lot of wind turbines around us in the region, so we have a lot of energy assets and local firms are servicing these,” says Mallay.
Sarnia-Lambton is not only recognized as the place for energy. There are several other sectors – particularly advanced manufacturing – that enable a diverse local economy, with such areas as automotive, building products, engineering, instrumentation, metal and plastics fabrication and call centres.
Certainly, agriculture also has a pivotal role to play in the Sarnia-Lambton arena and is the region’s second largest industry. Agricultural producers are crucial players in supporting the biohybrid chemistry cluster, and in fact, Lambton County is Ontario’s leading producer of soybeans, wheat and corn and related by-products and waste. Apart from commodity crops, Lambton’s agricultural industry is diverse with beef and hog and dairy operations, organic farming and fruits and vegetables serving a key role in the bread basket of Southern Ontario.
Mallay sees a great potential for the food processing industry given that, “We are a place that has been off the map for food processing, but we are surrounded by it… there is significant opportunity for companies that are serving the Ontario and Michigan market for food processing with a specific competitive advantage for refined sugar where a confectionary processor can pay 50% less than the price in the U.S. per pound.”
Sarnia-Lambton has a series of serviced industrial parks located throughout the County that cater to traditional and emerging industries. All parks are directly on or just minutes from Highway 402.
It also has sites geared towards the chemical industry, primarily brownfield sites. One competitive advantage these sites offer is that “you can save about twenty-five percent on capex by locating on those sites,” explains Mallay. “We’re one of the few places where you can buy power behind the fence. So we can have more competitive electricity pricing than many locations in Ontario involving energy intensive projects.”
Where education meets business
Sarnia-Lambton’s Lambton College was established in 1967, and Sarnia-Lambton Western Research Park, adjacent to Lambton College, was established in 2003. The facilities provided students, business and industry with the skills needed to address the demands of a globally competitive world. The research park ranked 22nd out of the world’s top university business incubators in 2014, according to the Swedish research company UBI Global.
In partnership with Lambton College, Sarnia-Lambton strives to ensure that business and industry needs are being met today and into the future. Mallay notes that the eighty-acre Sarnia-Lambton Western Research Park is on the former site of Dow Chemical Canada’s head office, and the research complex is ninety seven percent occupied. “We are becoming an emerging centre for the commercialization of bio-based and energy technologies,” he says. In fact, Sarnia-Lambton has a long history of cooperative education with industry. “The new Centre of Excellence in Energy & Bio-Industrial Technologies that was just announced at Lambton College was built in collaboration with industry and the needs of industry.” Lambton is becoming a recognized leader for its applied research and development and commercialization work with industry.
The Research Park is home to Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, whose focus is to help Ontario and Canada become a globally recognized leader in sustainable chemistry. A key initiative is building Sarnia-Lambton’s capacity as a world-class biohybrid chemistry cluster. The Bowman Centre, meanwhile, serves as a centre for commercialization and the cornerstone of innovation for renewable energy and sustainable bioproducts.
The creative industries is another sector in which the Sarnia-lambton Economic Partnership is seeing growth, and it hopes to promote this area further. “We are seeing an increasing number of people in our community moving here from Toronto and other locations that are starting creative businesses,” says Mallay. “We will have a new creative industries strategy that will be announced soon. We’re seeing people purchasing buildings and starting creative businesses on their own or in partnership with other groups.”
This past week the cast and crew of U.S. Syfy channel show 12 Monkeys were in Sarnia shooting the final scenes for the season two finale. This follows on the heels of the new South Western International Film Festival that just wrapped up in Sarnia.
Mallay believes that the emergence of the creative industry adds to the area’s high quality of life and also builds off of it. The region has great leisure activities in both rural and urban settings including opportunities for sailing, hiking trails, blue flag beaches, thirty golf courses, world-class theatre, and cultural events. “We are really sandwiched between two strong cultural centers: Detroit and Toronto,” says Mallay. He notes that another focus for Sarnia-Lambton is that of entrepreneurship and growing business. “That’s another key area for us that we’re putting a lot of effort in.”
Mallay suggests that what Sarnia-Lambton has done in the past two years – which many communities haven’t been able to do successfully – is a community branding exercise. ‘Discoveries that Matter’ is an initiative in collaboration with thirteen community partners. “We’ve been very successful with our umbrella brand and under the ‘Discoveries that Matter’ theme,” he shares.
As for Sarnia-Lambton’s future, George Mallay’s vision is one in which the community is a “globally recognized hybrid chemistry and energy complex with also a strong emerging creative industry and agricultural industry.” An impressive vision born out of an unintentional discovery of black gold.