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Technology Through Time

Oil Sands

Old Drilling Rig John Macoun of the Geological Survey of Canada visited the Athabasca oil sands in northeastern Alberta in 1875 and reported on the "tar mingled with sand." After a further report, Parliament passed a bill in 1893 authorizing funds for the agency to investigate the oil sands as a source of petroleum.

To explore the crude oil potential of the area, drilling began in 1894. However, crews eventually struck a reservoir of natural gas, which blew wild for 21 years before it was finally brought under control.

Sidney Ells, an engineer in the federal Department of Mines, found one possible commercial use for the oil sands in 1915 when he shipped several tonnes by water, sleigh and rail to Edmonton for road paving. It made a poor surface because it would not harden, and the transportation cost was high. Nonetheless, the material was used on roads for a number of years, and one shipment was actually sent to Ottawa for a demonstration project.

Ells realized that some processing would have to be done on-site, and was the first to suggest hot water as a means of separating bitumen from sand. Karl Clark of the Alberta Research Council eventually perfected a method using hot water and caustic soda, which is the basis for the system used in oil sands mining projects today.

Meanwhile, businessman R.C. Fitzsimmons founded the International Bitumen Company in 1922 and built a small plant near Bitumount, 80 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, to produce bitumen for roofing and road surfacing. A second small plant was also built in this era. This first commercial use of the oil sands continued with some success until several devastating fires occurred at the plants in the late 1930s. 

Petroleum Communication Foundation. Our Petroleum Challenge: Exploring Canada's Oil and Gas Industry, Sixth Edition. Calgary: Petroleum Communication Foundation, 1999. With permission from the Centre for Energy.



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