Star gazing is a challenge in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland.
The plethora of refineries and factories lights up the night sky like clusters of nesting UFOs.
The Heartland, just northeast of Edmonton, is North America’s third-largest processing centre for the petroleum, petrochemical and chemical industries, overshadowed only by Chicago and the Gulf Coast (which stretches from Texas to Florida).
As the pendulum swings from light oil to heavy bitumen coming out of the Athabasca oilsands 450 kilometres to its north, the Heartland is expanding to meet the new refining and hydrogen-adding needs.
The Heartland, a separate global marketing identity since 1999, includes parts of Strathcona County, Sturgeon County, Lamont County and the City of Fort Saskatchewan and covers about 194 square kilometres.
The location originally attracted petrochemical investment back in 1958 and now boasts more than 30 companies (including Sherritt International, Dow Chemical, Chevron and Imperial Oil) with more than $11 billion in processing facilities.
The proximity to a large, skilled workforce and the natural resources necessary for the industry ensure the region’s long-term viability.
Huge salt caverns lie deep in the ground and are mined for use in chemicals such as caustics, chlorine and sodium chlorate.
Once emptied, the caverns turn into valuable natural gas storage facilities, adding industrial value to the geography of the area.
Currently shaking up the scenery in the Heartland is Shell’s $1.7-billion Scotford Upgrader being built alongside the Scotford Refinery. The upgrader will provide feedstock for the refinery, which itself is undergoing $450 million in modifications.
The massive project, which will be fed bitumen straight from the oilsands via the newly constructed Corridor Pipeline, is a catalyst to growth throughout the region.
About a year-and- a-half ago, a developer took interest in Fort Saskatchewan and built 100 residential rental units.
It was the first major rental development for more than 20 years in a market that has been sitting at close to zero vacancy for more than a decade.
The units hit the market and were absorbed almost immediately – confirming the desperate need. But it took the upgrader, with its need for 6,000 construction workers, to give developers the security they were looking for.
Another 100 units are in the plans for later this year and will include an elevator to cater to the demand in the senior market.
Terry Stacey, director of economic development in Fort Saskatchewan, says alongside the flurry of local activity, the boom in Fort McMurray is helping sell houses in her community. It is becoming commonplace for workers to settle their families near Edmonton and then commute to the northern worksites and camps.
The city’s light industrial park has also been enhanced with new service and supply companies, highlighting the contrasting priorities of Fort Saskatchewan.
While the oil and gas industry is driving the economy, “we’ve always prided ourselves in being a very friendly, family-oriented community,” says Stacey, adding that once people station themselves in her city, the hope is they will fall in love with it and stay even when the upgrader is completed later this year.
Assisting the city in that quest is the choreographed nature of major refinery projects.
Thanks to a shortage of skilled tradespeople throughout the oil and gas industry in Alberta, companies have been forced to time construction and major maintenance around each other. In Strathcona County, Petro-Canada and Esso are waiting in line to construct facilities necessary to convert heavy oil.