Roughneck Mag
10 Years Ago

10 years Ago – Early Eastern Creeps and Bums By David Finch

The explorers of the Canadian West had to come from somewhere, and many of them came from central Canada. They came in the tradition of the fur traders who chased the beaver across the continent, intent on securing raw material for expensive hats for people in the old country. But the Geological Survey of Canada sent its surveyors west to scout out the mineral resources that could be exploited to enrich Ontario and Quebec. In 1875 John Macoun of the GSC looked into the future as he wrote in his diary on the shores of the Athabasca River, “Long after the noises [of camp] ceased I lay and thought of the not far-distant future when other sounds than those would wake up the silent forest; when the white man would be busy, with his ready instrument stream, raising the untold wealth which lies buried beneath the surface, and converting the present desolation into a bustling mart of trade.” Archie Dingman was the driller in charge of the Calgary Petroleum Products well that discovered oil at Turner Valley in 1914 and drew the attention of the North American oil industry to Alberta. Born in Ontario, he learned drilling in the Pennsylvania oilfields before moving west. In the early 1900s he drilled successful natural gas wells in Edmonton and Calgary, provided energy for the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company’s operations. He also formed the Calgary Natural Gas Company. In 1930 he commented that he was “confident that a great future awaits the oil industry in Alberta, and that Turner Valley is just one of the many structures in which large quantities of oil would be found.” After his success in central Turner Valley, Dingman formed the Highwood Petroleum Company and drilled a successful oilwell in the south end of Turner Valley in the late 1930s.


Another practical visionary in Alberta was Ontario-born Sam Coultis. With a pharmaceutical chemistry degree, Coultis began work for the Southern Alberta Oil Company in Turner Valley in 1917. He built a small refinery for processing liquids from the company’s two gas wells. He became Superintendent of Royalite Oil – an Imperial Oil subsidiary – in 1920 and played a key role after the discovery of sour gas at the Royalite No. 4 well in 1924. His chemistry background allowed him to create a series of ingenious systems for scrubbing hydrogen sulphide from the natural gas so that it could be piped to customers in Calgary. Beginning in 1925, a soda ash solution trickled down over a trellis of redwood grids in steel towers, absorbing the hydrogen sulfide from the gas. Operating at 300 psi, double the pressure of any other plant at the time, the soda ash then went through actifiers where heat released the H2S from the solution and the soda ash went back to scrub more gas. The plant scrubbed 97% of the hydrogen sulphide from 45 million cubic feet of gas per day, easily making it the largest gas scrubbing plant in the world. The full story of his accomplishments is told at the Turner Valley Gas Plant Historic Site. None of these ventures would have been possible without investors. An early believer in the Alberta oilpatch was Calgary lawyer R.B. Bennett who also became the first Prime Minister from the West. He invested in Bill Herron’s Calgary Petroleum Products, the company that found oil at Turner Valley in 1914, and became a wealthy man. In his first speech as a “red” Tory in Ottawa in 1911 he said, “The great struggle of the future will be between human rights and property interests: and it is the duty and the function of government to provide that there shall be no undue regard for the latter that limits or lessens the other.” As Prime Minister Bennett implemented many programs in a vain attempt to pull Canada out of the Depression of the early 1930s, he also claimed to have given the equivalent of $35 million (in 2008 currency) of his own fortune to the poor between 1927 and 1937. Another link between the regions is illustrated in the person of Roland Priddle. Though the regulation of the Canadian energy industry got its start in 1938 when the Alberta government created the Energy Resources Conservation Board, the federal government created a similar body, the National Energy Board, with a national mandate in 1959. Priddle rose to become Chairman of the NEB from 1987 to 1997 after helping dismantle the National Energy Program that was conceived and implemented in the heady days of the early 1980s by a federal government that expected the price of oil to rise to $100 per barrel – or about $265 a barrel in 2008 currency. Priddle was widely respected for helping deregulate the energy industry in Canada and for moving the NEB offices to Calgary. Recently deceased, Aubrey Kerr was another NEB employee who moved west. A geologist born in Ontario, he was involved in the development of the Leduc oilfield for Imperial Oil. Sixty years later, Kerr recalled his role in the development of the Leduc field as “the greatest achievement I ever had. There was almost that element of Christopher Columbus about it, of sailing into that unknown world. What happened in those weeks and months in 1947 changed the whole face of Alberta forever.” But Kerr’s most important contribution to Canadian petroleum history was as a recorder of its significant events. In the late 1970s, Kerr began collecting the history of the oilpatch while many of its participants were still alive. His selfpublished books tell part of the story and the Petroleum Industry Oral History Project that he founded collected more than 300 tape-recorded accounts from key participants in the recent history of the Western Canadian oilpatch. East may be East and West may be West, but Canadian petroleum regions have supported and learned from each other.

David Finch is a Calgary historian and the author of PUMPED – Everyone’s Guide to the Oil Patch, published by Fifth House Publishers of Calgary.


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