If you didn’t realize it before now, Alberta is oil country. The oil industry is one of the biggest industries in the country now, and it drives not only Alberta’s economy, but is an important part of Canada’s economy.
Now, this episode is not about the oil industry as it is right now, or the path it is going to take as the world moves to renewables. This episode is about the oil discovery that kickstarted an entire industry throughout western Canada. It is about an oil discovery that not only changed Alberta, but Canada.
For years, Imperial Oil had been spending millions of dollars drilling 133 dry wells through the years leading up to 1947, finding only minor oil discoveries. At the time, Alberta could have been considered a have-not province, with its primary industry being agriculture for the most part.
Everything changed on Feb. 13, 1947.
First, some background.
For centuries, the First Nations people would use the oil of Alberta for pitch in their canoes, and as a medical ointment. As settlers came in the 19th century, they began to notice that some areas had unusual odours, and a film could be seen on some water.
William Herron would arrive in the Turner Valley area of the province, near Calgary, in 1911 and he knew the foul odours came from natural gas. He convinced current MP R.B. Bennett, the future prime minister, and others to invest in a new business called Calgary Petroleum Products Company Ltd., so they could develop the area for oil. When the company hit oil with their third well on May 14, 1914, it sparked an oil boom that saw 500 oil exploration companies formed within a few days. Most of these companies were shams to get money from investors who did not know the company owned no land and was not planning on drilling for oil.
In 1924, a second major natural gas discovery happened when a well blew, causing a massive fire that burned for a month.
In 1936, the first major crude oil discovery would happen in Turner Valley at a depth of two kilometres, the deepest well in Alberta at that time. By 1942, the oil field reached its peak production of 10 million barrels and had the distinction of being the largest oil field in the British Empire.
That original oil discovery in 1914 would result in oil companies spending $150 million over the course of 30 years, amounting to about $2.2 billion today. No major reserves were found and the provincial government was forced to start issues tax relief for oil companies to encourage further exploration.
This is where Imperial Oil came in, drilling those 133 wells I had mentioned. With no success coming from that well drilling, the company decided that it may be time to abandon the search by the mid-1940s and instead produce synthetic gasoline from natural gas.
The geologists who worked for the company believed that greater reserves could be found at deeper depths and they convinced the company to do one more drilling effort. The board of directors agreed and Wildcat No. 134 was drilled as a last ditch effort.
Ted Link, the lead geologist for Imperial Oil, spoke with his staff and everyone agreed to try an area that was shaped like a triangle between Calgary and Edmonton, up to Grande Prairie. The company then purchased 200,000 acres of land southwest of Edmonton and began to survey the best area to drill. They came up with two candidate areas. One was one near Pigeon Lake, while the other was near Leduc. The team chose Leduc because it was closer to major roadways. This was a good decision because the Pigeon Lake well was later dug and proved to be a dry well.
On the farmstead of Mike Turta, a drilling site was chosen. Turta did not have drilling rights so Imperial Oil paid him $250 to lease his land, or $3,515 per year today. This well would be the only one within 80 kilometres, and would be dug to a depth of 2,100 metres and no more.
The man who did own the mineral rights to that area was named Eric Harvie. He moved to Calgary when he was 19 and after serving in the First World War and being wounded, he came home and by the 1940s was interested in buying land around the Turner Valley oil fields. He was unable to get any and the best he could do was half a million acres of land around Leduc.
Drilling would begin on Nov. 20, 1946 but only small traces of oil and natural gas were found going down to 1,200 metres. Drilling would pass the Mesozoic depth and indications were that there was large quantities of natural gas and a bit of oil. When drilling passed the Paleozoic Era and into the Devonian Era, tests showed promising results at 1,536 metres. The drilling was not easy and took all winter. One story tells of a rig hand who worked an eight-hour shift on top of the derrick and found he could not move his leg to climb down. Apparently, a button on the trap door of his fleece-lined long johns had come undone and the wind, along with -35 degree temperature, had caused his buttocks to freeze.
The people of the small community of Leduc were also suspicious of the rough men who were working close to the community. The men were not able to get any service at the restaurant or hotel in the community, and they had to live in makeshift housing through the winter, which was often cold.
On Feb. 3, 1947, a test sent a geyser of oil shooting up past half the height of the drilling derrick.
With that, Imperial Oil knew there was oil to be found at this location. Vern Hunter, the lead of the drilling team, was asked by the company when they expected him to hit pay dirt with the well. He would say, “The crew and I were experts at abandoning wells but we didn’t know much about completing them. I named February 13 and started praying.”
Hunter’s son, who was 11-years-old at the time, would say later on an anniversary of the date, “It was really a little exciting all right but it really didn’t hit us. We’d had so many disappointments. We were afraid this would be another one.”
Vern would relate himself about that day.
“By the morning of February 13, we hadn’t started to swab and that operation sometimes takes days. However, we crossed our fingers and at daylight started in.”
They would try to swab quickly and this would cause them to snap the shaft.
“We didn’t have time to wait for repairs, sow e had to lay down the travelling block, spool the drilling line off the main drum, cut off the 2,000 feet of sand line that was in the hole and spool the rest off the broken hoist onto the main drum…By noon, a crowd was gathering. By 4 p.m. the less hardy had shivered their way back to town.
Shortly after 4 p.m., the wellhead was cleared and the 500 people who had gathered and braved the cold, saw Leduc No. 1 spray oil into the air. The youngest member of the drilling crew was given the honour of flaring the well. As the crude oil and natural gas spewed out of the release pipe, the young man threw a burning sack on the mixture, sending flames 50 feet into the air.
This discovery was huge for Canada. At the time, the country only produced about 21,000 barrels per day and that mostly came from Turner Valley. In contrast, the country was consuming about 210,000 barrels a day. In Alberta, production was 7.7 million barrels per year from 416 wells and 90 percent of the oil needed by Canada was imported from the United States.
With this discovery, that all changed. By 1956, 65 per cent of the oil used by Canadians was produced within the country, and this was even though a three-fold increase in consumption. In that year, production was 144 million barrels from 7,390 productive wells, and Alberta produced 400,000 barrels per day.
The discovery would lead to a huge increase in the estimates of how much oil was actually in western Canada. In 1946, it was believed that there were 72 million recoverable barrels of oil in western Canada. By 1957, that estimate had been increased to three billion and today it is believed that there are 77 billion barrels of oil in conventional reserves in western Canada.
As for that original Leduc-Woodbend field, it would have its production peak in 1951, and exploratory drilling would end around 1955. The field would produce 4.7 million barrels of oil in 1948, far past the production of Turner Valley. The field saw its peak of 20 million barrels of oil per year between 1953 and 1956. In the first 50 years of the field, 250 million barrels were produced.
Leduc No. 1 would continue to operate for almost three decades until 1974. By that point, it had produced 317,000 barrels of oil and 323 million cubic feet of natural gas.
The production of oil at Leduc and in Alberta had another big benefit. It caused a rapid population boom in the province. In 1946, Alberta had a population of 803,000, while Saskatchewan had a population of 833,000. In 1951, Saskatchewan’s population had not changed much, but Alberta had seen an increase of 140,000 people. Throughout the 1950s, Alberta’s population would grow by another 400,000 people.
Alberta also began to create communities around the oil boom areas, with an effort to ensure they did not become ghost towns after the oil was gone. Devon, located just west of Edmonton was founded in 1949 by Imperial Oil, and Dayton Valley, the first model oil town in the province, was established with 100 people in 1954, and that community quickly expanded.
With the discovery of oil at Leduc No 1, the cities of Calgary and Edmonton increased their rivalry with both claiming they were the oil capital of Canada. The discovery also changed the path of both cities. Edmonton became increasingly blue collar as workers flooded into the city. The city would also see its population rise rapidly. Corporate offices of companies were typically established in Calgary though, with the city being a major rival to Houston as the energy capital of the world.
Remember Eric Harvie? Well, after oil was discovered and the boom began, he was worth over $100 million within five years. That would be equivalent to about $953 million today. The mineral rights had cost him $2,840. He would go on to use his money in a variety of ways, including opening the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and the Devonian Gardens in the same city. In 1962, he was made an honorary chief of the Blackfoot Nation and in 1967 he was made an officer of the Order of Canada.
Today, the Leduc No. 1 and Leduc-Woodland oil field are designated as a National Historic Site, and the Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre opened in 1997 to feature exhibits about the oil industry, as well as artifacts and equipment from the early days.
Information comes from Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC Archives, the Edmonton Journal, Adventurous Albertans, From Frontier Days In Leduc and District.