Consummate oilsands pioneer
By Peter McKenzie-BrownThis article appears in the 2011 Heavy Oil and Oilsands Guidebook
The first person with a technical background to devote his career to investigating the oilsands, Dr. Sydney Ells (1880?-1971) was the consummate oilsands pioneer. Until 1930, Ottawa held jurisdiction and ownership of Alberta’s mineral resources, and the federal Mines Department hired him in 1913 to investigate the resource potential of the oilsands. During more than 30 years with the department, he prepared 26 official oilsands reports and 15 maps of the region.
His 1913 report was the first government paper to stress that the oilsands in their own right had enormous economic potential. Previous investigators had proposed seeking light oil reservoirs near or underneath the sands. Working with the Parks Department, he then had 580 acres of prime oilsands property just outside the village of Fort McMurray designated the Horse River Reserve. It was on these lands that he conducted much of his research.
One notable experiment began in 1915. Ells shipped tons of oilsands by water, sleigh, and rail to Edmonton for a road-paving experiment. The stuff was used, without much need for repair, until the 1950s. Ells spent the last two years of the First World War in the armed forces. When the war was over, he returned to his work with the oilsands, soon becoming the federal government’s go-to guy on the oil sands.
Ells generally wintered in Ottawa, but spent summer months in the field. The trip from Edmonton to Fort McMurray in the early days was tremendously difficult. The first leg (145 km) was by wagon to Athabasca Landing. From there, he and his crew descended the river in a primitive scow. The return journey was worse, since it went against the current. Strong men used ropes to haul the scow to Athabasca Landing.
On one memorable occasion, Ells and his cocker spaniel actually walked the distance from Fort Mac to Athabasca Landing. So difficult were the conditions that he spent two days in hospital when he finally reached Edmonton.
In the 1920s Ells continued the paving material tests, with roads as far afield as Camrose, Jasper and Ottawa getting the oilsands treatment. He also arranged for test drilling – not for production purposes, but strictly to analyse the core. He invested a great deal of time and energy measuring geologic features, mapping terrain and cataloguing oilsands specifications. The oilsands got into Sidney Ells’ blood, and he stayed on top of research long after retirement in 1945.
Development efforts increased during the 1920s and 1930s – especially after the Alberta Research Council’s Dr. Karl Clark developed his game-changing hot-water separation process. After Alberta took ownership of the oilsands in 1930, however, Ells’ influence in the area went into decline.
His knowledge and enthusiasm had encouraged many business people and promoters to take an interest in the deposits, however, and his work helped create the cornerstone of today’s oilsands industry. Notably, in 1929 he went to Denver to meet with oil company executive Max Ball to discuss prospects for developing production from the Athabasca deposit. Having received Ells’ endorsement, Ball soon secured oilsands properties from the Dominion government – the last leases to be issued by the feds.
With encouragement from Ells that eventually overcame the discouraging economic conditions of the Great Depression, Ball began constructing the pioneering Abasand plant in 1936 but mining didn’t finally begin until 1941. In its first four months of operation, the plant processed 18,475 tonnes of oil sand to produce 17,000 barrels of oil then burned to the ground. The company rebuilt the plant and, in 1943, the federal government took it over as part of the war effort and experimented unsuccessfully with a cold-water process. Work at Abasand ended in 1945 when fire again destroyed the operation. That wasn’t the end of the Abasand legacy, though. In 1958 its leases became bedrock properties for Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor).
Ells’ pioneering efforts were not rewarded with a truly commercial project during his working career. More than half a century after he began his pioneering investigations, he was a guest of honour at the official opening of the Great Canadian Oil Sands plant in 1967. After years of struggle, GCOS became the first truly commercial oilsands plant. However, Ells’ former colleague, friend and rival didn’t make the opening. Karl Clark had died nine months earlier of cancer.