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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Feature Article


Written By: Michael Dawe
Published By: Red Deer Advocate Centennial Book
Article Used with permission. © Copyright Michael Dawe and the Red Deer Advocate, 2007

Heavy Industry finds a home in Central Alberta

In July 1976, work began on the massive Alberta Gas Ethylene plant on a 150-acre site just south of Joffre.

With a projected cost of $375 million, it was easily the largest construction project ever commenced in Central Alberta.

It was also one of the first steps in a major provincial initiative to diversify the Alberta economy. The provincial government realized that the great oil boom could not last forever and that other industries would have to be developed to ensure future prosperity.

One of the fastest ways to start diversification would be to encourage development of a petrochemical industry in the province.

To quote Premier Peter Lougheed, developing such an industry would end the decades-long practice of "literally shipping good jobs down the pipeline to Ontario." It would ensure that the value-added economic benefits would occur in Alberta.

Although the new petrochemical policy was announced in the legislature in December 1973, such a massive undertaking took an enormous amount of work and planning.

The Alberta Gas Trunk Line Co. regulated utility involved in the transmission of natural gas in Alberta, was persuaded to take the lead in the project.

It created a subsidiary known as Alberta Gas Ethylene (AGE) that would produce ethylene from ethane feedstock extracted from natural gas.

Dow Chemical and Dome Petroleum became partners.

Dow agreed to purchase all the ethylene produced by the plant for at least 20 years.

Dome agreed to purchase all the ethane left over after the production of ethylene and to export it.

The AGE plant, once completed, was to be the largest ethylene plant in Canada, producing 1.2 billion pounds a year.

Moreover, because it was to be a keystone for the future petrochemical developments, 1,920 acres were purchased near Joffre to allow for expansion and additional plants.

The first summer was taken up with clearing and levelling the site. Next, the necessary pipelines and foundations were installed.

A five-kilometre spur line was constructed from the CN rail line at Joffre to help move machinery and materials to the site.

A huge camp, capable of housing up to 800 construction workers, was also erected.

Because the booming Alberta economy meant it was often a challenge to hire enough labour for the project, care was taken to ensure that this camp had more amenities than were often found in such accommodations.

To assist with the project, roads were upgraded and at times rebuilt.

Work on the $375-mllllon Alberta Gas Ethylene plant began on a 1So-acre site just south of Joffre in 1976.

A new, much larger bridge was built across the Red Deer River, south of the plant, replacing the East Bridge, which had been originally constructed in 1922.

In the spring of 1977, the first steel structures began to emerge with the construction of eight massive cracking furnaces.

Standing on reinforced concrete pedestals, these furnaces were to be 25 metres high with stacks stretching upwards for another 43 metres. Nearby, a huge fracturing tower was erected.

In the words of the Red Deer Advocate, the site was beginning to take on its "industrial skyline."

In October 1978, four heavy cranes were used to lift the 75-metre flare stack into position.

It was one of the last pieces of heavy construction to be completed.

Work then began on the many kilometres of piping and thousands of valves and controls necessary to make the plant operational.

As well, a 20-acre reservoir, built to ensure a constant supply of water to the plant, was completed.

In the summer of 1979, an orange glow radiated across the countryside as the plant began to gear up for production.

People could see the light from as far west as Bentley and as far south as Innisfail.

On Oct. 22, 1979, the new plant officially opened.

Premier Peter Lougheed, described by the Red Deer Advocate as "exuberant," unveiled the official plaque at an outdoor ceremony.

He called the complex "a turning point in the economic diversification of Alberta."

He emphasized how important the new petrochemical industry would be in creating employment opportunities and ensuring future prosperity for the province.

To underscore that this massive project was just the first in a number of ones planned, even before the plant was opened, AGE announced that it would be building a second world-scale ethylene plant near Joffre.

With in a few weeks, the Energy Resources Conservation Board announced its approval.

Central Alberta was now well on its way to becoming the hub of a huge petrochemical industry in North America.

This article was written by Michael Dawe for the Red Deer Advocate’s Centennial Book. The Heritage Community Foundation would like to thank Michael Dawe and the Red Deer Advocate for permission to reprint these materials online. Please visit the Red Deer Advocate online.The images in the article are part of the collection of the Red Deer Archives. Please visit them online.

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