Oil change: With Sarnia’s economic future in the crosshairs, mayor calls for energy summit

Tara Jeffrey

Sarnia’s mayor is calling for an all-hands-on-deck summit to address growing concerns and challenges faced by local industry amid fear the area will be left behind as the world pivots away from fossil fuels.

“I think it needs to be taken as a wakeup call — that we simply cannot continue with the status quo,” said Mike Bradley. “Not just with the investment part of it, but also with the environmental direction the country and the world is taking.”

The mayor wants the city to host a Community and Environmental Summit — similar to previous successful summits — to discuss the environment and future of energy as it relates to industry in Sarnia-Lambton.

“With the great changes happening in the fossil fuel industry… it’s time the community has a discussion and debate about the future of the sector and what we can do to meet the challenges and benefit as we re-position the fossil fuel industry for the future, as we have been doing with the bio-fuel industry,” Bradley wrote in a request for council today, which calls for a staff report on a summit in the first quarter of 2022.

Partners could include Lambton County, First Nations, the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park, Lambton College, Bio-industrial Innovation Canada (BIC), the Sarnia Lambton Economic Partnership (SLEP) and others, he said.

“Sarnia is not what people outside of Sarnia think it is; there’s a lot of effort underway, at the college, the research park and with industry, to move with direction,” he said.

“And there’s going to be billions of climate change action plan dollars… we should embrace it; we should be looking at how can we be part of that transition — especially when you have the bio-innovation, biofuel centre of Canada located here already.”

Canada’s biggest producer of carbon emissions is oil and gas, a sector on which Sarnia’s Chemical Valley is heavily dependent. Canada is imposing tighter regulations to reduce oil and gas methane emissions by 40% over the next four years.

Transportation and gasoline-powered vehicles is Canada’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Sarnia is home to three refineries that make gasoline: Imperial, Shell and Suncor.

“I know there will be naysayers — I’ve been running into that for a long time — who will say we’ll get another major investment. And we may,” Bradley said. “But there’s nothing on the horizon.”

With the exception of Nova Chemicals’ Corunna expansion project, Sarnia-Lambton hasn’t seen petrochemical investments in more than a decade beyond the standard “stay in business” maintenance spending, according to a July study done by IHS Markit.

“More than half of companies surveyed do not view Sarnia as a primary investment target. As such, the Sarnia-Lambton cluster has not received the necessary anchor infrastructure renewal and modernization required to maintain its long-term competitiveness and viability,” it said.

The report warns that future environmental regulations could result in local plant closures as refiners and petrochemical companies “will likely need to invest large amounts of capital to address the needs for both plastics recycling and carbon capture and sequestration.”

This month, the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada called on the province to work with industry and other stakeholders to “renew and transform” the chemistry sector. It referred to an Ontario petrochemical industry study that concluded Sarnia has “never before faced such a serious threat.”

Climate change and the global chemical industry’s general plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will likely transform the regional and global business structure, it said.

“The world is changing, the sands are shifting,” Bradley said.

“I think we need to have a strategic discussion as a community, all included, about, OK where are we going with this?” he said.

“We can react to the changes happening in the world. Or we can help lead them.”