Skip to main content
how it works

Rising and unfathomable fuel prices make oil companies easy targets for our wrath. But there are a number of factors that play into how we get the gas in our tank and where it comes from.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Engineers are always looking for ways to make the internal combustion engine more efficient. The central component of this search for better mileage and lower emissions is the fuel itself. Oil companies have to work hand in hand with engine manufacturers as new developments and regulations emerge.

Rising and unfathomable fuel prices make oil companies easy targets for our wrath. But there are a number of factors that play into how we get the gas in our tank and where it comes from.

There are a large number of retail outlets that sell passenger car fuel – from Canadian Tire and large grocery chains to Esso, Shell and other oil companies. It is common practice for all of these outlets, dozens in any city, to get their fuel product from one single refinery.

You can see several big trucks lined up with their hoses attached to different outlets at a refinery. I once took a picture of Shell, Texaco and Petro-Canada trucks filling up at an Esso refinery.

The point is that the refineries have contracts to supply gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, aircraft fuel, etc., tailored to the specific requirements of that customer.

All gasoline is not created equal. Shell, for example, boasts about the cleansing properties of the gasoline at its stations. It requires non-Shell refineries across the country to blend its gasoline to its specifications, to use the required additives.

Shell is one of the companies supplying Top Tier gasoline – fuel that exceeds the minimum standard for detergents. Meeting that standard results in additional costs at the refinery. Chances are the fuel you buy at a discount chain does not meet these same standards.

So the few refineries scattered across the country have to supply a wide variety of customers, many with different requirements. But where are these refineries and how big are they? Using the latest figures from the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute and the Conference Board of Canada, they are as follows:

  • Irving Oil, Saint John, N.B., 300,000
  • Ultramar, Levis, Que., 265,000
  • Imperial Oil, Edmonton, 185,000
  • Suncor, Edmonton, 135,000
  • Suncor, Montreal, 130,000
  • Imperial Oil, Nanticoke, Ont., 120,000
  • Imperial Oil, Sarnia, Ont., 120,000
  • North Atlantic Refining, Come-By-Chance, Nfld., 115,000
  • Shell, Scotford, Alta., 100,000
  • Consumers’ Co-Op, Regina, Sask., 100,000
  • Imperial Oil, Dartmouth, N.S.; 89,000
  • Suncor, Sarnia, Ont., 85,000
  • Nova, Sarnia, Ont.; 78,000
  • Shell, Sarnia, Ont., 75,000
  • Chevron, Burnaby, B.C., 55,000
  • Husky, Lloydminster, Ata., 29,000
  • Suncor, Mississauga, Ont., 15,600
  • Moose Jaw Refining, Moose Jaw, Sask., 14,000
  • Husky, Prince George, B.C., 12,000.

Virtually all of the crude oil used in refineries west of Sarnia comes from Canada. Because of the vast distances involved, costs, complexities and environment issues in running pipelines across this country, crude oil used in the eastern refineries comes from offshore, a limited amount from Canada's offshore wells, but the majority comes from foreign countries.

The sources of the foreign oil are: Algeria (17,942 cubic metres per day), United Kingdom-North Sea (15,370), Nigeria (11,835), Norway (11,483), Saudi Arabia (10,922), Iraq (6,376), Venezuela (4,218), Mexico (4,089), United States (1,857) and 29,999 cubic metres a day is purchased on the open market from other sources.

In the last year for which it has complete figures, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers reports 35.7 per cent of the refinery capacity in the country was used to produce gasoline, 23.9 per cent for diesel, 12.8 per cent for fuel oil, 4.6 per cent for petrochemical feedstock and 4.2 per cent for aviation fuel.

Something to think about? In the last 40 years, 31 refineries have been closed across the country.

Correction: An earlier online version of this story contained out-of-date information on Canadian oil refineries.