This week we asked Joyce Hunt, author of an award-winning book about oil sands history, to return as our guest blogger responding to our questions about the term “tar sands,” pioneer personalities and governments’ perspectives on early development.
Joyce’s book, Local Push – Global Pull, is a documented history of the Alberta oil sands from 1900 to 1930. We thank Joyce for taking time to answer to our questions.
Some in industry today are quite sensitive about the label “tar sands.” How did this label come about?
In 1894 R.G. McConnell of the Geological Society and Deputy Minister of Mines boldly stated that the deposits were known as tar sands, and by 1913 Canadian geologists had agreed to describe “the black plastic mass as ‘Tar Sands.’”
In 1910 the Canadian government made this term official when it referred to tar sands in a Privy Council Order passed to regulate development in northern Alberta.
It’s interesting to note that those actually developing the deposits began to object to the use of the term tar sands as early as 1910, and encouraged the use of oil sands as developers began to understand the resource’s chemical makeup and uniqueness.
It seems oil sands development attracts larger than life personalities. Who were some of the colourful early pioneers?
Count Alfred von Hammerstein is the best known of the early pioneers. He was the first to ship drilling equipment north in 1903 in order to determine the area’s potential. Controversy and criticism seemed to follow him no matter what his accomplishments were. Although called “Count” by others, I have yet to find a document that he signed as such.
Alberta’s first Lieutenant Governor, G.H.V. Bulyea, was president of the first company incorporated to exploit the oil sands. His company appears to have been granted special privileges when it came to land assignment. His company discovered salt at the mouth of Horse Creek and conflict arose when Hammerstein, who was with another company, applied for the rights to harvest the salt for the Alberta Salt Company.
A.F.A. Coyne is probably the most controversial of all the early pioneers. His lavish lifestyle came at the expense of other investors. He was embroiled in a number of lawsuits surrounding one of the smallest pieces of land and was involved in what today would be called a hostile takeover.
How did provincial and federal governments regard the oil sands during the early years of activity?
Both the provincial and federal governments recognized the commercial value of the oil sands but they played different roles in the development up to 1930. There are a few, but little known, facts that shed an interesting light on their respective interests.
The Dominion Government, now the federal government, was responsible for the first official scientific investigation of the oil sands in the late 1800s. It was determined at that time that future development of the oil sands would “seriously compete” with the already established petroleum industry in Ontario. It was only when Ontario’s petroleum production showed signs of decline that more attention was given to the oil sands.
In 1905, when the Province of Alberta was created, the Dominion Government retained control of natural resources within the province. After years of negotiating, Alberta was finally on equal footing with the original members of Confederation when control of the resources within its boundaries was turned over to the province in 1930.
Undertakings by both levels of government did however complement each other. The federal government commenced an investigation into the extent of the oil sands, had topographical maps prepared and sponsored several reports. In addition, the federal government sponsored experiments with the oil sands for roads in Alberta, while the Alberta provincial government, through the University of Alberta, supported studies for a viable hot water separation process.