This week we asked Joyce Hunt, author of an award-winning book about oil sands history, to be our guest blogger, responding to questions we had about the early years of development.
Joyce’s book, Local Push – Global Pull, is a documented history of Alberta’s oil sands from 1900 to 1930.
We thank Joyce for taking time to respond to our questions.
What was the most surprising thing that you discovered through your research for this book?
The biggest surprise for me when I began looking for information on the oil sands was that companies actually existed in the early 1900s to work the oil sands. Coincidentally, I located an advertisement for such a company that was reproduced in a 1969 Great Canadian Oil Sands company newsletter, and it was this article that became the genesis of my research. What was even more surprising was the actual amount of interest in the oil sands 100 years ago and the number of companies that were formed with the intent of winning oil from the deposits.
What were some of the pressing issues in the early years of oil sands development?
One of the more pressing issues of the day was simply logistics, just as it is today. However, 100 years ago all the drilling equipment, seasonal supplies and men to work the deposits had to travel the hazardous Athabasca River and navigate 80-plus miles of a series of dangerous rapids that ended just before Fort McMurray, rather than Highway 63 as there were no roads or railways to the region at that time. Another major issue was technology. At first conventional drilling equipment was imported to win the oil. It was soon realized that conventional methods would not bring success, and other technology was experimented with. As early as 1917-18, a steam injection method was attempted, then extraction processes and more in-situ methods were applied during the 1920s. In 1911, small quantities of the deposits, shipped out in scows, were used to pave city streets in both Edmonton and Calgary. By the early 1920s, larger shipments of asphalt were shipped south using the newly-constructed railway, and streets throughout Alberta were paved with this product. But the freight costs were too high to make this a viable business. So transportation, technology and costs were the major issues at the time, just as they are today.
Oil sands are currently of interest to foreign investors. Was this the case historically as well?
It is interesting you ask this as we think that the world today is just awakening to the value of the oil sands reserves. As I went through the shareholder lists for the early companies up to 1930, I discovered that investors in the oil sands came from not only western Canada but also the United States and as far away as South Africa, Japan and England. England was extremely interested in the oil sands as a way to supply its growing thirst for petroleum products, especially during World War I, and made efforts to influence early regulations governing petroleum development in Canada. Several articles appear in London newspapers during this time and British geologists began examining the deposits and preparing reports. Interestingly, one Edmonton newspaper even reported in the early 1920s that the people of China knew more about Alberta’s oil sands than the people of Edmonton.