Monday, June 08, 2015

Petroleum before Confederation

In good times, there is a lot of   tut-tutting about the oil sands – dirty oil and so on...

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

When oil prices decline, however, Canada’s economy suffers and there is widespread concern. Yet even in bad times – this year, for example – capital spending in the oil sands sector will total about $20 billion. Not bad for a crippled industry and one which, this month, celebrates its 300th anniversary.

The first historical reference to this uniquely Canadian resource came on June 27th, 1715. A factor with the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading operations, James Knight wrote that he had learned about
the Great River it runs into the Sea on the Back of this Country & they tells us there is a Certain Gum or pitch that runs down the river in Such abundance that they cannot land but at certain places & that it is very broad and flows as much water.
A minor player in Canada’s history, Knight became wealthy through the fur trade. He and his crew disappeared from history in 1720, seeking the Northwest Passage to Asia.

Minor this story may be, but it illustrates that, from the beginning, the oil sands have been a joint venture representing government, industry and science. In Knight’s time, the British wanted to extend their continental dominance, fur traders sought new trapping and trading opportunities, and the Hudson’s Bay Company wanted to better understand its resources. The particulars have changed. The joint venture has not.
Alberta’s oil sands today are a global powerhouse, but the “bitumen” – essentially weathered oil, sometimes heavier than water– made Canada a petroleum pioneer on two other occasions.

Nova Scotia: In the 1840s Nova Scotia’s Abraham Gesner (image of commemorative postage stamp, above) developed a refining process which transmuted bitumen and oil into kerosene. In the 1850s he focused on producing what he termed “kerosene” as a liquid lamp fuel, and that product was the world’s principal source of light until well after Edison developed his electric light bulb. His work lit homes and factories throughout the world.

By Gesner’s reckoning, in the two decades from about 1846 he conducted about 2,000 experiments, all of them aimed at converting coal or bitumen-like substances into a lighting fuel.

The first geologist appointed by a British colony, he made geological surveys of both New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. His inventions included one of the first electric motors driven by a voltaic battery, briquettes made from compressed coal dust, a machine for insulating electric wires, a wood preservative, and a process for using asphalt to pave highways.

Gesner also founded the first science museum in Canada – a collection of 2,000 preserved animals and other artifacts. Today, that collection is a cornerstone of New Brunswick’s provincial museum.

And Ontario: Charles Nelson Tripp gets credit for being the first to recover petroleum for commercial use in central Canada. Tripp’s journey began in 1851, when he started dabbling in the mysterious "gum beds" of Enniskillen Township on the north shore of Lake Erie, and three years later, the Province of Canada incorporated its first oil company.

Parliament chartered the International Mining and Manufacturing Company in 1854, with Tripp as president. The charter empowered the company to explore for asphalt beds and oil and salt springs, and to manufacture oils, naphtha paints, burning fluids, varnishes and related products.

Tripp soon sold his interests to James Miller Williams, who brought in light oil at Oil Springs, Ontario, in 1858. The usually untold part of that story is that Williams had been drawn to that location through his investigation of the surface seeps of bitumen that had attracted Tripp.

Williams got a crew to start digging, and soon found that light oil was the source of the gum beds. One outcome of his early efforts is that nearby Sarnia became a refining and petrochemical centre.

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