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Story of the Tar Sands - Assenpiskew

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R.G. McConnellHow many of those Kisteneaux now helping to produce 350,000 barrels per day from the McMurray tar sands know that their forefathers 300 years before had been using the same "gum or pitch" to caulk their canoes? Assenpiskew (rock gum) is now replacing the depleting conventional crude reserves further to the south, not only ensuring Canada's security of supply but providing a strong economic future for Alberta.

The following early explorers were made aware of the tar sands by the Indians:

  • Henry Kelsey              1719
  • Peter Pond                 1778
  • Alexander Mackenzie  1788
  • Dr. John Richardson, Surgeon & Naturalist, 1828 (submitted a Report to the Colonial Secretary).
  • Malcolm McLeod, Chief Trader, Hudson Bay Company, early 1800's (reported on northern bituminous springs).

Dr. Robert Bell of the Geological Survey of Canada (1882-84) was the first to realize the commercial potential of the area He worked closely with Christian Hoffman, Survey Chemist, who carried out considerable experimental research. Hoffman even estimated the amount of bitumen in place by assuming 1,000 square miles, 28.5 cubic miles of sand and 22.9% content of bitumen to equal 26 billion barrels in place. Estimate by the McMurray Tar Sands Centre is almost 120,000 billion barrel (1999).

In the 1880's a Senate Committee was formed to investigate the reserves of the Great Mackenzie Basin in the 1880's. Witnesses such as Count Von Hammerstein appeared before this body to give evidence.

R.G. McConnell of the GSC discovered seepages at Tar Island on the Peace River and recommended drilling for fluid oil down-dip from the outcrop because he believed the oil originated from the underlying Devonian limestone. The first government well would be drilled to test his theory and was funded in the amount of $7,000. The rig had been moved in from Toronto in the summer of 1893 (funding details in 'CORRIDORS OF TIME, Part I', pages 5, 6, 8. This well was abandoned in 1894. A second government well blew gas until 1918. Stan Slipper came up to help kill it. By 1920, the Feds had drilled and capped five gas wells. In 1921 Ottawa considered the establishment of a carbon-black plant using this wasted gas but it never materialized.

Count Alfred Von Hammerstein appeared before the Senate Committee in 1907 describing the experiments he had carried out, even to using the tarry residue to produce tar paper. He is said to have assured the Committee the sands would be of great value to the nation, once a reliable method of transportation was available. He obviously did not realize the cost and research needed to extras the oil from the sands. He organized Athabasca Oils Limited in 1910. Some of the 15 wells he drilled gave considerable encouragement. Although the automobile was in its infancy using tar sands for pavement was a more important objective of the day.

There were already government regulations in place but they did not include the substance called "asphalt". However, the Count acquired "freehold" leases with six titles one mile apart fronting along the Athabasca River. They were Dominion lands and extended back about three miles.

Later on, Eric Harvie gathered up as much of the control as he could. Harvie later sold all of his interests to Chevron. Somehow or other, that got into the hands of Suncor and Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS). GCOS went to the Board in 1954 and were told "We cannot give you any share of the market". So they had to get two purchasers who would absorb the output: GCOS 2,500 barrels per day and Sun Oil 7,500 barrels per day.

GCOS got their first leases (originally Abasand) right next to the Bitumont plant (Karl Clark). They were told "you should satisfy yourself that it has to be good and the only reason that Bitumont plant is here is that it is close to the river and only for experimenting". There was no study made of the value of the acreage as far as tar sands was concerned. The two companies requested one half of the statutory Crown royalty for three years to help them get started. Hubert Somerville agreed to that.

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