Opinion: Chemistry and plastics sector can guide Canada post-COVID

Canada has not been spared by the economic havoc wreaked across the globe by COVID-19.

For Alberta, in particular, the pandemic has added to a list of difficult challenges over the past twelve months. After dealing with a rail strike in late 2019 and rail blockades at the beginning of this year, which stalled Alberta’s key products from getting to markets, the province was dealt another blow from the downturn in oil prices and then, of course, the world health crisis, which has affected everyone in the province.

In one way or another, life has changed for most people – from how we shop, eat and work. This time of adjustment and transition presents a unique opportunity to focus on the positives and steps we can take to come out of the pandemic ready for recovery. Alberta’s economic challenges are obvious but can be solved by pushing forward with new investment, creating much-needed jobs and collectively rebuilding the economy in Alberta and across Canada.

An area of Alberta’s economy that has stepped up during the global crisis is its growing chemistry and plastic sectors. Traditionally overshadowed by oil and gas, the chemistry and plastics sectors already have a significant presence in the province, with the production of industrial chemicals contributing $9.2 billion to Alberta’s economy in 2019 and plastic product manufacturing adding a further $2.6 billion. Some of the most respected and responsible chemical and plastics companies in the world, including Nova Chemicals and Dow Canada, have facilities in Alberta and there is further investment underway by Inter Pipeline and Canada Kuwait Petrochemical Co.

From the onset of the pandemic, the importance of the chemistry and plastics sectors — both in terms of their economic output and for keeping Canadians safe and protected — was highlighted again and again. Companies acted early and quickly to ensure that their worksites and facilities adapted to physical distancing guidelines and restricted access to non-essential employees and contractors.

Minimal disruptions to operations and logistics allowed them to continue providing urgently needed response items such as isopropyl alcohol, sanitation chemicals and the building blocks for personal protective equipment. They have also been tapped to provide the inputs for millions of consumer goods in high demand as Canadians adapt their lives to public health guidelines.

Emerging from the crisis, Alberta-based chemistry and plastics companies can be among the leaders in the new, post-pandemic economic reality and help fill the gap from an oil and gas sector that continues to see challenges.

With the increasing demand for PPE, plastic packaging, sanitizers and disinfectants, along with the chemicals we need to ensure safe drinking water, and the critical inputs required to support a return of activity to other priority sectors of our national economy — including forestry, construction, and automotive manufacturing — the opportunity for growth and new investment is clear.

As the fundamental building blocks of the modern world, chemistry solutions and plastics will continue to play a vital role as we build the post-pandemic economy. As we re-imagine transportation systems, indoor environments, workplaces and emergency preparedness protocols, the goods of chemistry will be front and centre. Alberta and Canada can significantly, and responsibly, grow the chemistry and plastics sectors by leveraging our existing strengths — all while meeting Canada’s stringent climate change goals with the sector’s best-in-class global environmental standards.

The Alberta government is leading the way in attracting investment by introducing the Alberta Petrochemicals Incentive Program as well as actively working to reduce red tape and streamlining regulations so chemistry, plastics and other sectors can grow and thrive responsibly. The province is also working on a natural gas strategy that, ideally, will affect our sectors for the better.

Alberta’s lead in investing in this low-carbon and innovative sector is a model worth following. To realize the many opportunities made possible by Canada’s chemistry sector, it is essential that our federal government create commonsense policies that will foster growth and begin working collaboratively with the provinces to attract multibillion-dollar global investment into our nation.

Bob Masterson is the president and CEO of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada.

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