Good timing for Nova expansion

When Nova Chemicals confirmed two years ago that it would proceed with a $1-billion expansion of one of its polyethylene plants at Joffre, there may have been concerns about the resulting drain on Central Alberta’s pool of skilled labour.

When Nova Chemicals confirmed two years ago that it would proceed with a $1-billion expansion of one of its polyethylene plants at Joffre, there may have been concerns about the resulting drain on Central Alberta’s pool of skilled labour.

Now, the project’s hefty manpower requirements are helping to blunt the impact of job losses in the region’s energy sector. About 300 tradespeople — plus another 75 support personnel — are currently involved, with this figure expected to ramp up to 800 by the end of summer, said site leader Rick Van Hemmen.

Meanwhile, Nova is also refurbishing five of the 11 furnaces in one of its ethylene plants, with 100 to 150 tradespeople active on this $250-million project. And on May 20, the company’s other polyethylene plant will undergo scheduled maintenance for a month, with that $25-million project requiring a peak workforce of 650.

“That 650, on top of numbers that are climbing on the polyethylene 1 expansion and on top of the furnace revamp is definitely a significant number for the site,” said Van Hemmen, noting that the normal operating staff and contractors at Joffre and Nova’s offices in Red Deer number between about 1,150 to 1,250.

He said he’s pleased that the spike in Nova’s labour requirements coincides with a time of downsizing elsewhere.

“It’s certainly important for us and I’m happy that we can also support the local economy.”

Van Hemmen acknowledged that there might have been concerns about getting the workers needed if petroleum producers had remained busy.

“If the pressure had stayed where it was in all the other projects in the province, it would have been a bit of a struggle.

“It definitely doesn’t hurt now that there’s a bit of slack in the province.”

Nova is being impacted by low oil prices in other ways as well.

Although it relies on natural gas for the ethane feedstock it uses for ethylene and polyethylene production, many other producers in the world use oil. Accordingly, low crude prices have pushed global polyethylene prices down, affecting Nova’s bottom line.

“Our earnings are impacted significantly by a reduction in crude prices,” said Van Hemmen.

Fortunately, he added, demand for polyethylene — a key ingredient in many plastic products — remains strong, despite the energy industry slide.

“We’re really finding that there hasn’t been a slowdown in demand for our products.”

Although the skyline at Nova’s Joffre plant has changed considerably in recent months, the polyethylene expansion project is only about 30 per cent complete, said Van Hemmen.

“It’s always easiest to get the big structures and the big items in place, but that’s by no means where the bulk of the work is and where all the detail takes place.”

Much of the electrical, instrumentation, mechanical and other work remains to be done, he confirmed.

The addition should be mechanically complete by the middle of next year and ready for commissioning by the end of 2016, said Van Hemmen.

Related work has included expansion of Nova’s rail yards at Joffre and development of a nearby community nature trail.

“That project is coming along nicely,” said Van Hemmen of the 220-acre natural area, which could be ready for public use by the end of this year.

“We’re really at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

Nova will hold an open house this Wednesday to discuss its various projects and any other topic raised by attendees.

The event will take place at Haynes Hall (at the corner of Range Road 24-4 and Township Road 39-0) from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., with a presentation and discussion planned for the second hour.

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