Oil & Gas - 1950 to 1960's

After the discovery of rich oil and gas deposits near Leduc in 1947, the search for oil all over the province was intensified. Fifty new oil companies moved into Edmonton during the first six months of 1949 alone. As author and veteran Robert Collins put it, you only needed money and the guts of a burglar to drill for oil. Whitecourt was not overlooked during the exploration activities.

Survey crews, seismograph parties, geologists and other related personnel were much in evidence throughout the local area. Traveling by riverboat. four-wheel drive and whatever means could be found these people plotted, graphed and logged reports for the government and interested oil companies.

Without oil, it was estimated that Alberta would have been in the economic doldrums during the 1950's. Canada itself was feeling a financial pinch as a result of ringing up huge trade deficits from U.S. imports, even while Canadian goods and raw materials flowed to help rebuild war-torn Europe on credit. The Bank of Canada governor, following orthodox finance, was calling for stringent action to protect the country's foreign exchange position in the very month that Leduc No. 1 blew in. Literally billions poured into Alberta in the next decade to develop the oil industry. As author James G. MacGregor wrote in A History of Alberta "not only had oil put chicken on every Albertan's table but it saved every Canadian's bacon".

Harry Johnson recalls guiding one of the first oil exploration parties to go west from the Whitecourt area in 1949 or 1950. "A geologist from the University of Alberta, Dr. R. -Folinsbie, employed by Stanolind Oil Co. for the summer, wanted to plot the surface geology along the Athabasca River. So Dr. Folinsbie, a young student geologist with him, and myself, loaded 8,000 pounds of equipment and supplies including three barrels of gasoline on the boat. We headed up river - lots of boats came down the river at that time but none went up, everyone said it couldn't be done. We were out about one month, stopping at various points on the way so the geologists could plot their graphs and measure elevations and so on. They pointed out several spots where they were sure oil would be found and sure enough, later developments proved them right.

We also took several 'foot' trips away from the river - did as much hiking and tramping around, as river boating. We went up beyond Hinton - had no way of telling exactly where we were as there wasn't much there in those days and all there was for a map was a piece of paper with a line marked Athabasca River on it! All there was at Hinton was a hotel, one store, post office, garage and half dozen or so houses. On the way back my boat engine quit just below Hinton so I unloaded the fellows and stuff and floated down to Whitecourt for repairs. Didn't think I'd make it through some of the back eddies around the islands - it was pretty hectic - but made it okay, and in one day too. All it was, was a burnt coil, so I got it fixed and went back to pick up the fellows."

Harry made several trips upriver guiding oilfield personnel. On one such expedition they apparently ended up in Jasper Park, which they didn't realize until the park warden politely told them that they were in forbidden territory. The warden was somewhat amazed to hear they had come from Whitecourt - no one else ever had.

In 1951 Canadian Fina Oil Ltd. purchased the million acre West Whitecourt Block from the Provincial Government. Subsequently, Pan American Petroleum Corporation and the Hudson's Bay Oil and Gas Co. Ltd. joined Canadian Fina in the development of the block.

Fina drilled their first well in March 1954, which turned out to be a dry hole. The second well drilled in March 1955 (12-36-59-15 W5) was the big one - the discovery gas well of the Windfall field. Development over the next five years brought in eleven more good producers.

The Beaver Creek field was discovered in 1956 about twenty-seven miles to the southwest of Windfall. In the following year, Hudson's Bay Oil and Gas, which operated the Beaver Creek field, opened the Pine Creek field. This was just north but adjacent to the Beaver Creek field.

Joint ownership of these three fields gave rise to a unique and interlocking recovery process. The aim was to recover the maximum amount of gas, sulphur and hydrocarbons. Before proceeding with large scale development, a pilot program was carried out to test the validity of the operation. Canadian Fina operated the initial part of the pilot program which centered in the Windfall field.

Peter Cotsworth, Operations Manager of Petrofina related that "because of the isolation of the area and the need to have senior people available in time of emergency and for safety reasons, it was considered necessary to house key operating people near the scene of operations in the field. In those days there was no bridge over the Athabasca and the trip from either Whitecourt or Edson could take as much as four hours.

The Windfall housing project went up quickly. Starting in the middle of the bush on a selected site, all the utilities including sewer, water, gas, electricity, street lighting, roads and sidewalks were installed and operating within seventy days. As well, ten houses were completed and occupied by families. The houses were over 1,050 sq. ft. and had full basements with detached garages and paved driveways. Phase II of the project saw the erection of seven more houses, an apartment building and a three room school..

The Plant and Pipeline group of W. Palmer, R. Cunningham and A. Petrunic did the design and field supervision for the pilot project. The housing and civil works were designed and constructed under the direction of Peter Cotsworth and Lew Rizzo. All the work was under the management control of J. E. Baugh, Fina's Chief Engineer at that time."

There were twenty five Fina employees hired for the pilot plant and field operation. Some of the Fina names connected with the first operation which may be remembered in Whitecourt are Frank Klein, Field Superintendent; Jim Ankle, Drilling Supervisor; Harold Noyes, Engineer; and F. Atkinson, Plant Foreman.

The pilot project met with success. The result was that Pan American built a new, larger scale plant at Windfall, named the West Whitecourt Plant. This went on stream in April, 1962. Pan American employees operated the new plant and Fina employees continued to operate the field. A company brochure explains the gathering and process system as follows:

"Gas from the Windfall field is transmitted into the plant for processing - extracting and stabilizing the condensate, and sweetening the gas. To ensure the greatest recovery of condensate, it is necessary to maintain the high pressure in the Windfall field. To accomplish this, Pine Creek gas is piped to Windfall and injected into that reservoir through wells near the outer limits of the field. This injection pushes the wet gas towards the Windfall producing wells, thus preventing the loss of a valuable liquid resource. After the processing, the residue gas is sold and transported via pipelines to the group's customers.The hydrogen sulphide gas that remains after the sweetening process is fed into the sulphur plant which is owned by Texas Gulf Sulphur Inc. situated at Windfall and operated by Pan American."

The sulphur recovery process is as follows: "The first stage in the sulphur manufacturing process consists of burning the hydrogen sulphide gas with air in a furnace, then cooling it in a boiler to form liquid sulphur. This stage removes 60% of the sulphur. By using a process of passing the burned gases through a catalytic converter and condenser and then repeating this process a total sulphur recovery of 95.5% was obtained. (A further process increased this recovery to 98%.) The remaining gas is burned to form sulphur dioxide and released to the atmosphere through a 400' stack."

With the new main plant in operation, better access than the four hour commute was needed. The owners constructed a new road which left the paved Edmonton - Grande Prairie Highway seventeen miles west of Whitecourt. The major hurdle in building this road was the construction of a steel and concrete bridge over the Athabasca River. Ten months and half a million dollars later the bridge was completed in time for the plant to go into production in April 1962.

The C.N.R. mainline stopped at Whitecourt in those days, so it was necessary to build a spur line from Whitecourt to the new plant. Bridging, ballasting and track laying took almost a year and was completed in November 1962. Texas Gulf made their first shipments in December 1962.

With the bridge over the Athabasca, the commute was now only 30 minutes, so that the necessity for the Windfall Fina housing project disappeared. In 1966 the families moved into new houses in Whitecourt. The homes were moved to Fox Creek where they are today.

The 51 Pan American employees at the new West Whitecourt plant also required housing. An area on the hilltop at Whitecourt was purchased from the Department of Forestry and several three bedroom homes were built. This is the present day McLeod Drive housing area on the hilltop in Whitecourt, with the houses now privately owned.
Pan American's office was built on the hilltop as well, connected by radio and telephone to Windfall. The Fina office remained at Windfall until 1970.

Some of the personnel originally involved in the Whitecourt office and Windfall plant were as follows: Errol Wagner, Area Superintendent (who remained here from August, 1961, until his retirement from the company in July, 1974); Robert Lofland, Plant Foreman; Fred Atkinson, Process Foreman: John Gunderson, Field Material Supervisor; James Morrow, Plant Engineer; George Goss, Area Clerk; Tony Neidermayer, Petroleum Engineer and Rene Couteret, Maintenance Foreman.

In 1963 another compressor and a Hydrocarbon Recovery Unit were added to the West Whitecourt Plant. In 1964, Number Three Sulphur Unit and additional sweetening were added and in 1968 the Number Four Sulphur Unit was incorporated.

Mobil Oil, then known as Socony-Vacuum Oil Company of Canada Ltd. was the next company to become involved in the Whitecourt area in the 50's. The following description of Mobil's operations in this area was compiled from information supplied by Don Shaw.

In December 1956, Mobil spudded their discovery gas well in the Carson Lake area. Their discovery oil well was spudded in 1957. More producing wells were brought in over the next few years and construction was started on a cycling plant in 1962. This plant went on stream in December, 1962 and employed seven people. The oilfield operation required five people.

The project engineer for the plant development was J. Terry of New York. Plant foremen were H. Herrmann and Don Shaw, and Field Foremen were H. Rutz and A. Tink. Both Don Shaw and Art Tink were transferred to other towns but later returned to Whitecourt.

In 1965 there was a major addition to the plant when a liquified petroleum gases (LPG) section was built. At this time, the plant and field operation required forty- one employees and another twenty-four employees were required for the Rainbow Lake operation in Northern Alberta. Many of these Rainbow Lake employees maintained homes in Whitecourt.

Mobil's office was originally located in a trailer on top of the Whitecourt hill, in a trailer court owned and operated at that time by Ann and Ian McGregor. The office was moved into the old cafe portion of the motel and used until 1969. Then it was moved to a new trailer on 50th Avenue and 47 Street. Finally, in 1971 the office was moved to a location out at the Carson Plant.

Mobil purchased land on Wagoner Crescent east of 47th Street, and installed water and sewer lines as well as sidewalks. The employees' houses or trailers were moved to the lots. The lots were then sold to the employees for $550.00 on the payroll plan. Two homes were purchased on McLeod Drive for supervisors.

Mobil, too, had to build a network of roads and bridges, to go from the main highway out to the plant and its various wells and batteries. When the Esso came in to operate the Judy Creek field near Swan Hills in 1959, the roads built by Esso and Mobil were joined. The result was there was still no government-built route between Swan Hills and Whitecourt - only the oil road built and maintained by Mobil and Esso.

Another major production company to move into the Whitecourt area was Pacific Petroleums Limited. Pacific has the unique distinction of being the only company to have had a gas well within the limits of the Town of Whitecourt. This well (11-25-59-12 W5) was situated on the hillside behind Whitecourt Communications. Another Pacific well (4-1-60-12 W5) comes very close to the town limits, and was situated just north of the Graham Acres Golf Course.

The development of Pacific Petroleums is described by Pacific personnel: "Development in the Whitecourt area followed exploration as early as 1957, but it was in 1967 that Pacific's three discovery wells (10-6-59-10 W5,10-14-60- 11 W5, and 10-27-60-11 W5) disclosed estimated marketable reserves of approximately 300 billion cubic feet of sweet and relatively dry natural gas.

The Pacific Petroleums gas treating plant, six miles east of the Town of Whitecourt, was completed in November, 1969, by National Tank Limited of Calgary with construction of the gas gathering pipeline system by Flint Engineering and Construction Limited. The Plant's initial design capacity of 35 mmcfd dry residue gas was rerated to 50 mmcfd dur- ing construction, (mmcfd means million cubic feet per day.) In 1972 the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board approved a 30% Increase in throughput to 65 mmcfd raw gas inlet. The three original employees involved in operating the plant were: R. G. (Bob) Williams, M. J. (Max) Herron and D. (Doug) Mulvey.

By the early 70's a total of five personnel are responsible for the plant's function as well as operating the eighteen sweet gas wells in the system."

Along with the establishment of major oil companies in the Whitecourt area, a natural upsurge in supporting services evolved. Construction companies were formed or moved in. Trucking, hauling and all kinds of oil and gas service industries put down roots in Whitecourt. Many of the new ventures grew as time went on, becoming an integral part of the healthy growth of Whitecourt.

The preceding was summarized from Sagitawah Saga by Doreen Olecko, along with other source works.