The invisible source

A walk through the city’s vanishing energy centre

W ith a little gust of wind, molecules of oil refinery leftovers are wafted into your nose. Maybe if you live in the area, you cease to appreciate the fine bouquet. I can only imagine what it’s like on breezy, hot summer days. The Montreal-Est Refinery takes up a lot of room, and most of it is wide open space, presided over by tall industrial buildings and stacks that glitter like snippets of Vegas at night. Located a 20-minute bus ride east of Honoré-Beaugrand metro on Sherbrooke, the refinery is Shell Canada’s largest, and has been in operation since 1933. According to an article on Shell’s web site, it produces “gasoline, distillates, jet fuel, lubricating oils, waxes, and bitumen.” In 1933, it processed 5,000 barrels of crude oil per day (bpd), but increasing demand, coupled with numerous expansions and advances in technologies, means the refinery now pumps out more than 130,000 bpd. From as far away as Parc Thomas Chapais, about three kilometres west, you can see the clouds of gases rising above houses.

These clouds are made of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, benzene, and volatile hydrocarbons. In the nineties, Environment Canada found that the levels of benzene and other hydrocarbons were “a growing health concern.” Although measures have been taken to reduce emissions, there were still 10 tons of benzene launched into the atmosphere in 2003. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, long term benzene exposure can cause reduced circulation of red, white, and clotting blood cells, and leukemia.

Despite better health standards, demand for oil has actually dropped recently as a result of the economic recession. Shell announced in January that the plant will be converted into a fuel terminal, meaning it will serve as an oasis for gas stations, airports, and other clients in the area.

The refinery is a massive, but tucked away, monument to society’s energy greed. The contrast between downtown Montreal and Montreal-Est is striking. Downtown is dense, tall, historic, and social; Montreal-Est is open, flat, utilitarian, and inorganic. Downtown sucks energy into itself like an overeager child with a slushie; Montreal-Est serves that slushie. Montreal-Est is a lonely area, and not hospitable to the visitor on foot; it is a landscape that has been sacrificed and hidden to support the maintenance of a more picturesque one. However, walking along the side of Sherbrooke (which is more like a highway in that part of the city), it is difficult not to grasp how integral oil refineries are to our daily lives. We don’t like to see where our energy comes from, or what the waste products are – we don’t like to meet the cow we’re about to eat – but it’s a valuable dose of the reality about the price we have to pay for modern comforts. After all, those clouds of gas travel – even if they’re usually invisible by the time they float over downtown Montreal.

Now, with the refinery closing, the area will serve a slightly different purpose, but ultimately one that serves the same goal – to be the kitchen for our energy appetites. If the refinery was a stove before, now it will be a server. And the smell might be better.