From the Beginning - NOVA's Plan to Boost Its Marcellus/Utica Ethane Use in Sarnia

NOVA Chemicals’ 1.8-billion-pound/year ethylene plant in Sarnia, ON already is one of the largest consumers of Marcellus/Utica-sourced ethane, and plans are in the works to significantly increase the steam cracker’s ethane consumption. In 2018, NOVA will complete a project that will enable the cracker to be fed 100% ethane; the petrochemical company also is mulling a cracker expansion –– again with ethane as the feedstock –– and a new polyethylene plant next door. All these plans are driven in large part by the availability of low-cost ethane piped from the U.S. Northeast. Today, we continue our review of southwestern Ontario’s NGL, petchem and refining infrastructure with a look at the big effects of NOVA’s plans.

From the beginning of the hydrocarbon era in North America, Sarnia has played an outsized role in crude oil, refining and petrochemicals, in large part due to that essential truth of real estate: Location, location, location. First, it was its local oil resource. As we said in Part 1 of this series, an 1858 oil well in nearby Oil Springs, ON is said to have been the first on the continent. Over time, oil-production, refining and petchem infrastructure was developed in southwestern Ontario (as were railroads and pipelines); that infrastructure made Sarnia a refining/petchem center, a position that continues to this day, decades after most oil production in southwestern Ontario dried up. In Part 2, we looked at the crude oil side of things, describing the three refineries in Chemical Valley, the oil pipelines that supply them, and the petroleum-products pipelines that help move the refineries’ output to market. Then, in Part 3, we turned to Sarnia’s increasingly important natural gas liquids (NGLs) sector –– the pipelines that transport purity ethane and mixed propane/butane to Chemical Valley, the fractionator that separates the propane/butane mix into purity products, the NGL storage facilities, and the big NOVA ethylene plant that “cracks” ethane, propane and butane into petrochemical products, with the star of the show being ethylene –– a critically important petchem building block.

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Today we zero in on ethylene and polyethylene production, particularly on NOVA’s ambitious plan to capitalize on its advantageous location in Sarnia –– near the Marcellus/Utica’s vast supply of ethane, atop salt formations that provide ideal ethane storage, close by several polyethylene plants that consume ethylene, and within a day’s drive of half of North America’s demand for ethylene/polyethylene-based products –– by retooling its Sarnia cracker (photo below) so it can consume up to 100% ethane (instead of its current combination of about two-thirds ethane and one-third propane/butane) and then (possibly) expanding its cracker to further increase its ethane use and ethylene production, and building a new polyethylene plant nearby.

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