Sarnia Lambton Economic Partnership

Becoming a leading energy centre in bio fuel technologies
By Leah Kellar

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Click to view Brochure

Sarnia Lambton Economic Partnership is a public-private sector partnership corporation that is advancing Canada’s petrochemical and refining centre in Lambton County.  Lambton County, situated in in Southwestern Ontario on the shores of Lake Huron, is also home to the growing Sarnia-Lambton Biohybrid Chemistry Cluster. This is an area that encompasses a diverse range of industries including chemical production, bio-based manufacturing and research, agriculture, automotive, engineering, instrumentation, metal and plastics fabrication, machining, and environmental solutions for process and other types of manufacturing industries. 

Lambton County has distinct roots in oil and gas industry as the location of North America’s first oil gusher in 1862, preceding much of the present day supply coming from Alberta and the United States. Oil was discovered in the aptly named town of Petrolia, which is near Sarnia. The town, billed as “Canada’s Victorian Oil Town”, is often credited with starting the oil industry in North America.

The Economic Partnership sets itself apart with only 10 staff and a governing board that is truly representative of the community. The 16-member board of directors has representation from the Warden of the County of Lambton, the Mayor of Sarnia—which is the largest city in Lambton County— and representation from many small and large businesses in a variety of sectors from labour to education.

“Lambton County council and the community have showed commitment to a long-term strategy toward bio-based chemistry and repurposing the industrial infrastructure here,” said George Mallay in a recent conversation with Business Elite Canada.

Mallay has been with Sarnia Lambton for 18 years where he has helped to set the corporation’s direction, and acted as a coach to put in place strategic programs with measurable goals and objectives. Prior to joining the staff, he worked in the Ottawa-Carleton region at the municipal and regional levels in economic development after graduating with degrees in economic planning, and urban geography. While working in Lambton County he later obtained an MBA.

Reflecting on the evolution of Sarnia Lambton, Mallay says its current incarnation began in 1994 with the establishment of the Council for Economic Renewal. After a large downturn in the chemical industry at the time, there was strong involvement from the private sector and much community consultation that occurred in 1994 and 1995 among business, labour groups, and government. The Council for Economic Renewal merged with Sarnia Lambton’s Economic Development Office in in 1999 and the Sarnia Lambton Economic Partnership— a public-private sector corporation— was the result. In terms of economic development, Sarnia Lambton is instrumental in the growth of the current petrochemical and energy industry in the region, which has remained strong and continued to evolve over the decades until the corporate downsizing of the 1990s.

“Our focus since about 2000 has really been about getting more diversification within the petrochemical and energy industry,” said Mallay.

Right now that diversification is embodied in three target areas of focus of Sarnia Lambton’s refining and chemicals complex: Oil and natural gas liquids coming from Alberta, shale gas coming from the Marcellus Formation in the Eastern United States, and Sarnia Lambton’s own local feed stocks. Concentration is on bio–based products.

“Eighty per cent of the bio mass grown in Ontario is within 200-kilometres of Lambton County. We also have the ability to import bio-mass from Michigan,” said Mallay.

Bio companies such as BioAmber, Woodland Biofuels, KmX, and GreenCore Composites have chosen Sarnia-Lambton for their manufacturing or pilot plants because of the synergies offered by the Sarnia Lambton Biohybrid Chemistry Sector. Methes Energies built a bio-diesel plant, and Enbridge has the largest ethanol plant in Canada in this region. Sarnia Lambton is also looking into sustainable repurposing of assets and infrastructure that can be updated to produce cleaner energy through greener processes such as its 2500 megawatt coal-fired plant that it had to close after the province closed all such plants years ago, however it is an asset that can be repurposed.

The region has no shortage of infrastructure to accommodate the green chemistry and energy industry. The area has a 540-megawatt plant owned by TransAlta Corporation, two large combined-cycle plants of about 500-1000 megawatts, another 300 megawatt plant that is currently under construction, and an 80-megawatt solar farm located on approximately 405 hectares. It also has the Dawn Storage Complex, which is the largest natural gas facility in Canada of over 150 billion cubic feet, and one of the fastest-growing storage hubs in North America. It can deliver up to two billion cubic feet a day to storage and transportation customers.  The area also is situated in a geographically favorable position with a lot of tie-ins to the U.S. pipeline availability and electrical grid, and water from the St. Clair River drawing from Lake Huron.

Innovations also abound in the region from companies in new energy technologies such as those building instrument enclosures, high voltage power systems, a bio based fuel cell, energy vortex and storage systems. Another company is looking at building a new polysilicon plant on the Dawn site owned by TransAlta and now called Blue Water Energy Park. Sarnia Lambton is also the home of Bio-industrial Innovation Canada, which is responsible for developing sustainable chemistry for Canada. They have been very active with an investment portfolio including project with a number of pilot plants for testing next generation chemicals and fuels.

Both the private and public sectors have come together to contribute to Sarnia Lambton’s economy. Examples of largest contributing sites include Nova Chemicals, Imperial Oil, Suncor Energy and LANXESS. The public sector has played a key role in economic development.  The community came together in 2003 in an initiative to buy approximately 120-hectares of land and an office and research complex from the Dow Chemical Company where their head office was located. They worked out a relationship with the University of Western Ontario to establish a research park there. The research park now has 87 per cent occupancy. In a recent study Western Research Parks ranked 22nd out of 800 research parks in the world.

Likewise, Lambton College is also on board with increasing local economic development in the energy and bio-based chemical industry with a skilled labour pool and applied research.

“The college has a very strong working relationship with industry and has realigned its programs and continues to make realignment where necessary in terms of skills and infrastructure to be able to deliver what the industry needs,” said Mallay.

The region has about a 30 per cent unemployment rate of skilled trades people. Its labour force has among the highest safety record in the country, and there are generally low employee turnover and absenteeism rates.

Owing to the region’s chemical industry, there are over 100 manufacturing and industrial services companies that are strong in engineering, in metal fabrication, machining and environment, which can build from pilot scale to full-scale chemical plants.

“We’ve really been working with those companies to make them more export oriented, and they have come together and formed something called the Sarnia Lambton Industrial Alliance. They have been doing a lot of marketing to Western and Eastern Canada and other areas to be successful,” said Mallay.

The region’s high rate of labour availability means that it has under-utilized infrastructure, such as pipeline capability that is available. There are also a number of Brownfield sites already zoned with infrastructure in place. Consequently 20-25 per cent can be saved on capital expenditure in terms of quicker time to get product to the market. While attracting investment is important to Sarnia Lambton, sustainable repurposing of existing infrastructure and other assets is also recognized as an advantage.

“We want to attract investment, but we also want to grow what we have and build products and services that the world needs from our location,” said Mallay.

The Partnership markets what it has to offer in various exhibitions of the world-bio market. It also employs an ongoing call program to targeted companies to meet directly with senior directors and CEOs of companies.

“We really focus on targeting those industries and having specific materials that target a sector and really try to find out what the needs of a company are and how to meet them.”

Sarnia Lambton’s immediate goals are to attract the next generation of bio-based energy companies in 2015, and to attract the next generation of energy technology laboratories to get more large-scale fabrication projects from Alberta Oil Sands— in a way brining energy back to its historical birthplace in North America since it all began in 1862.