From the Beginning- Sarnia's Evolution as Refining/Petchem Center Continues

Sarnia, ON is one of Canada’s leading refinery and petrochemical centers, and for good reason. From the start –– 158 years ago, with what Canadians claim to be the world’s first oil well in the Western Hemisphere –– the Sarnia area has had geology and geography on its side, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s within 500 miles of more than half the people in North America. But the interconnecting infrastructure that drives Sarnia’s Chemical Valley isn’t nearly as well known or understood as the pipelines, railroads, storage and refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Also, it should be noted, Sarnia has become one of the biggest beneficiaries of Marcellus/Utica production of ethane and other natural gas liquids, the mother’s milk of the petchem sector. That alone makes it worth discussing. Today, we begin a series on a lynchpin of Canada’s hydrocarbon production and processing sector.

If Canadians are to be believed –– aren’t they too nice not to be? –– the first commercial oil well was dug (not drilled) by James Miller Williams at what came to be known as Oil Springs, ON (just south of Sarnia, in southwestern Ontario) in the summer of 1858. That was a full year before Edwin Drake drilled his first well at Titusville, PA.  Decades and even centuries before Williams dug that initial 50-foot well (some say he was drilling for water –– not oil –– and got lucky, Jed Clampett-style), the Oil Springs area had been known for its sticky, crude oil-based “gum beds,” small parts of which were excavated and refined into asphalt, paints and resins by native people and noted by early French explorers. After he struck oil, Williams, went right to work, building a simple refinery nearby and establishing Canada’s first oil company (J.M. Williams Co., which was soon renamed the Canadian Oil Co. to reflect his ambitions). Within a few years, more than 100 oil wells had been drilled in the Sarnia/Oil Springs/Petrolia area by wildcatters, and the region’s oil business was off to a rousing start –– until it wasn’t. The boom led to a bust (too much oil production flooded the market and prices collapsed –– sound familiar?), but a rebound followed, and by 1900 not only had Imperial Oil been formed (it had refineries in Petrolia and in nearby London, ON), it had been gobbled up by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. (Exxon Mobil still owns nearly 70% of Imperial.) Oil production in Ontario fizzled out decades ago, but by World War II Sarnia had cemented its place as one of eastern Canada’s refining and petrochemical hubs, criss-crossed by railroads and pipelines, and chock full of skilled refinery and petchem workers.

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Our intent in this series is to describe Sarnia’s existing refinery and petrochemical infrastructure, including the railroads, rail yards, pipelines, storage facilities (underground and aboveground), and other elements that help to keep the place humming –– and, in many cases, thriving. Then, we’ll get to ongoing and planned changes that will affect (for better and for worse) some of Chemical Valley’s major players. First, we should remind non-Canadians that Sarnia is located near the southern tip of Lake Huron, where the second-largest of the Great Lakes flows into the St. Clair River. The St. Clair forms part of the boundary between Ontario and southeastern Michigan; the river flows into Lake St. Clair, which flows into the Detroit River (which flows into Lake Erie). There are currently three refineries in Sarnia with a combined capacity of about 277 Mb/d: Imperial (121 Mb/d; pink rectangle in Figure 1), Suncor (85 Mb/d; brown rectangle), and Shell (71 Mb/d; red rectangle). 

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