Friday, July 07, 2017

Author collates science and sweat of oilsands past


Oil sands scientist Karl Clark (right) and unidentified assistants, c. 1950

Some years ago, the Calgary Herald's Stephen Ewart attended a presentation I gave on the oil sands, and wrote it up for his newspaper. That talk formed the basis of a book I recently published. Titled Bitumen: The people, performance and passions behind Alberta's oil sands and registered as a Canada 150 project, it went on sale through Amazon today; a Kindle version follows next week. Here's the table of contents.

Contents

Foreword · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · ·· · · · · · · · ·  · · xi
Introduction · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· ·· · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · ·  · ·  xvii
Chapter 1 Revolution · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · · · ·· · ·  · ·  1
Chapter 2 The war to end war · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · · ·· · · · · · · · · ·  31
Chapter 3 Serious investigation · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · ·· · · · · · · · · ·  52
Chapter 4 From war to war · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · ·· · · · · · · · · · ·  68
Chapter 5 The atomic age · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · · ·  94
Chapter 6 Energy becomes political · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · · · · ·· · · · · · · · ·   103
Chapter 7 Sun Oil and GCOS · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · · · · ·· · · · · · · · 118
Chapter 8 Syncrude · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ··· · · · · ·· · · · ··  134
Chapter 9 Policy meets economics · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ··· · · · · · · · · ·  153
Chapter 10 Getting steamed · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · ·· · · · 171
Chapter 11 Inside out · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · ·· · · · · · ·  190
Chapter 12 Profitable years and their collapse · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · · ·· · · · · · ·214
Chapter 13 Maelstrom · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · ·· · · · · · · ·  247
Afterword · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ··· · · · ·  ·  263
Acknowledgements · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · ··· · · · · · · ·· · · · 267
About the author · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · ··· ·· · 269
Sources · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· ·· · · · · ·· · · · · · · · ·· · ·  271
Notes · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·· · · · · ·· · ·· · · · · · ·· · · · · 301
Index · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ··· · ·· · · · ·341


The book is  registered as a project celebrating Canada's sesquicentennial.
Many thanks to Stephen Ewart, who with the following article encouraged me to begin this project. Here is his article:


With so much discussion and debate about the future of oilsands development these days, Peter McKenzie-Brown is one of the few voices urging people to reflect on its history.

The Calgary author is actually relying on the voices of the pioneers of oilsand development going back decades as he interviews the captains of the industry, the technological innovators and the people with their boots on the ground to create an oral history of the oil-sands.

Take the experiences of Tom Morimoto, who worked at the Bitumount oilsands plant in 1936 and 1937. Morimoto recalled how when his family arrived in Fort McMurray in the 1920s - from Japan, via Hawaii and Vancouver - one of the main units of trade locally was still the pelts from muskrats trapped in the Athabasca River Delta.
The oilsands were a well-known resource even at that time, but they presented an immense technical frontier for the industry.
Factor in an isolated location and the extreme weather and the workers who trekked to northern Alberta in those early days certainly fit the description of pioneers.

In interviewing Morimoto - one of close to 80 people interviewed to date - McKenzie-Brown is able to record for academics, students, authors and other researchers in the future the first-hand accounts of the people who were part of the great science experiment.

Morimoto’s account of the initial Bitumount oilsands plant in the mid1930s describes the wood-burning boilers which powered “a Little Donkey Engine” which scooped up bitumen-soaked dirt for the small-scale facility that applied hot water to separate sand and clay from the thick, gooey oil.

“Yeah, it was a marvel of engineering, a real Rube Goldberg rig being built,” said Morimoto, sarcastically recalling the less-than-efficient operation 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray owned by the International Bitumen Company.

“During the height of operation and they must’ve had about 60 or 70 men working there, none of us got paid,” he said.

At the time, it was at the depths of the Great Depression and a lot of people laughed at the series of cartoons by Goldberg, an American artist who often depicted complex gadgets that would perform simple tasks in indirect and convoluted ways.

None of today’s critics of the oil-sands ever cites a Rube Goldberg.

Morimoto is now 94 and living in Kelowna, B.C. His is one of the “voices” that McKenzie-Brown and his colleague, Adriana Davies, on this initiative for the Petroleum History Society want to record for The Oil Sands Oral History Project.

They describe it as the most extensive research and documentation project undertaken on the oilsands industry. With funding from major producers and the Alberta government, the project was launched in 2010. It builds on the Petroleum Industry Oral History Project in 1980 by Aubrey Kerr, a geologist in the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame.

The list of people McKenzie-Brown and Davies have interviewed include CEOs like Rick George of Suncor Energy, Charlie Fischer of Nexen and Eric Newell of Syn-crude, technical innovators like Dee (Parkinson) Marcoux and politicians including Preston Manning and Peter Lougheed.

And there are geologists, engineers and workers like Morimoto.

When the project is concluded, the series of high-definition videos and text will be part of the extensive records on the oil and gas industry in Canada that are housed within the Glenbow Museum Archives in Calgary.

For the public, the Calgary Association of Lifelong Learners will host a series of lunch and learn sessions at the Glenbow in January and February with McKenzie-Brown and other experts to discuss the history and technology as well as the environmental, social and economic impacts of oilsands development.

From the initial industrial activity early in the region in the 20th century, the change from bucket wheels and conveyor lines to truck-and-shovel mining and the spate of in situ projects that have boosted production to 2 million barrels per day, the oilsands has always been defined by challenge.

“The oilsands were always a technical struggle and once it stopped being a technical struggle it became a public relations battle,” says McKenzie-Brown, an author who has written books on Alberta politics, corporate communications and Canada’s oil industry.

In his estimation, there were five visionaries who stand above the others in the development of the 1.7 trillion barrels of heavy crude oil in northern Alberta.

His “fab five” includes scientist Dr. Karl Clark in the 1920s, Alberta premier Ernest Manning and Sun Oil patriarch J. Howard Pew in the 1940s and 1950s as well as inaugural Syncrude president Frank Spragins and premier Peter Lougheed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Books have been written on these pioneers but during an interview, McKenzie-Brown offered up a brief synopsis of what each achieved for the oilsands:

 -  Karl Clark: “The great oilsands scientist. He’s the fellow who understood chemically what the oilsands were and how to develop them.”

 -  Ernest Manning: “In 1951 he brought all the oil companies together and put on a big conference in Edmonton to talk about the impact and the potential of the oilsands. It basically set off a great land rush of people getting into the oilsands.”

 - J. Howard Pew: “A great American industrialist. He became interested in the oilsands during the Second World War because the Allies were looking for oil. He basically said we are going to make this happen and he put his own personal money at stake.”

- Frank Spragins: “He worked for Imperial Oil (establishing its oil-sands operations) and he was the guy they put in charge of Syncrude but unfortunately he died six weeks after it opened.”

- Peter Lougheed: “He basically said ‘Look, 90 per cent of this resource is in areas you can’t mine’ so he created AOSTRA (Alberta Oil Sands Technology Research Authority) that led to development of in situ technologies ... which created SAG-D, which is the most important oilsands technology.”

In fact, Lougheed was the first person interviewed for The Oil Sands Oral History Project.

McKenzie-Brown recalls how the former premier, who died in September, said the politics and policies around oilsands development always remained important to him.

“He told me the only thing he really stayed involved in after he left office was the oilsands and he pretty much stayed with it until his death,” McKenzie-Brownsaid. “He felt development was proceeding too fast and the environmental implications weren’t being properly considered.”

The stage for the oilsands boom Lougheed grew concerned about was set in the late 1980s with the development of steam-assisted gravity drainage technology to recover deeper buried oilsands and the streamlining of the royalty system in 1996 to account for the massive upfront costs of oilsands projects.

As oil prices climbed from the historic $20 benchmark past $100 a barrel in the 2000s, the costly-to-produce oilsands were ready to takeoff.

It was only a decade ago that the international energy agencies actually recognized Canada’s 170 billion barrels of oil reserves in the oilsands.

Today, challenges still exist but the oilsands pioneers are a driving force in the revolution in unconventional energy resources that has generated new technology and is helping change the future of oil.

This article appeared in The Calgary Herald in December, 2012.

Credit: Stephen Ewart; Calgary Herald


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