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Pembina: The Hidden Elephant

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There is only a modest amount of oil beneath each square mile of the Pembina field, but the entire producing area covers 1,000 square miles-in area, the largest oil field in North America. But who could know this at the time the first well was completed?

A nightmare that haunted wildcatters was the thought that the drilling bit might grind right through an unsuspected oil zone. The aban­doned and supposedly dry hole could leave behind, unknown and untouched for years or even decades, a major oil field worth perhaps hun­dreds of millions of dollars.

That isn't too likely with the 21st century technology now used in hunt­ing for oil or gas, but it certainly happened throughout most of the 20th cen­tury when oil men lacked sophisticated methods of measuring the charac­teristics of rocks buried a mile or more below the ground. Not all oil zones, when penetrated by the bit, release a great surge of oil. Oil trapped in the tiny pores of many rocks is often yielded only after great coaxing. Rock cut­tings, ground up by the drilling bit and carried to the surface by the circu­lating stream of drilling fluid, may give little hint of the presence of oil.

It might have happened at the discovery well of Canada's largest oil field but for the alertness of a young geologist, an Alberta farm boy just three years out of university. It was an elephant oil field, a well-hidden elephant.

Arne Nielsen as a youth had assumed that he would be a farmer, and probably someday would have his own spread not far from the farm on which he was born, near the village of Standard in southern Alberta. But now, in January 1953, he sat in his new Edmonton office and marvelled a little at the swift course of events that had led instead to his position, at age ­27, as central Alberta district geologist with a major international oil firm, the Socony-Vacuum Exploration Company, later named Mobil Oil.1

Arne had the stamp of an Alberta farm boy: the short but stocky and powerful build; the large, strong hands; the broad features and blue eyes that hinted of his Danish ancestry. His father, Aksel, had immigrated to Iowa as a boy of 17, unable to speak a word of English, and two years later joined a group of 32 Danes who took up farming on CPR lands in the Standard area. Aksel returned to Denmark to marry his childhood sweet­heart, and had brought her to Alberta.

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