Athabasca Oil Sands - History

History

See also: History of the petroleum industry in Canada (oil sands and heavy oil)

The Athabasca oil sands are named after the Athabasca River which cuts through the heart of the deposit, and traces of the heavy oil are readily observed on the river banks. Historically, the bitumen was used by the indigenous Cree and Dene Aboriginal peoples to waterproof their canoes. The oil deposits are located within the boundaries of Treaty 8, and several First Nations of the area are involved with the sands.

The Athabasca oil sands first came to the attention of European fur traders in 1719 when Wa-pa-su, a Cree trader, brought a sample of bituminous sands to the Hudson's Bay Company post at York Factory on Hudson Bay where Henry Kelsey was the manager. In 1778, Peter Pond, another fur trader and a founder of the rival North West Company, became the first European to see the Athabasca deposits after exploring the Methye Portage which allowed access to the rich fur resources of the Athabasca River system from the Hudson Bay watershed.

In 1788, fur trader Alexander MacKenzie (who later discovered routes to both the Arctic and Pacific Oceans from this area) wrote: "At about 24 miles (39 km) from the fork (of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers) are some bituminous fountains into which a pole of 20 feet (6.1 m) long may be inserted without the least resistance. The bitumen is in a fluid state and when mixed with gum, the resinous substance collected from the spruce fir, it serves to gum the Indians' canoes." He was followed in 1799 by map maker David Thompson and in 1819 by British Naval officer John Franklin.

John Richardson did the first serious scientific assessment of the oil sands in 1848 on his way north to search for Franklin's lost expedition. The first government-sponsored survey of the oil sands was initiated in 1875 by John Macoun, and in 1883, G.C. Hoffman of the Geological Survey of Canada tried separating the bitumen from oil sand with the use of water and reported that it separated readily. In 1888, Robert Bell, the director of the Geological Survey of Canada, reported to a Senate Committee that "The evidence ... points to the existence in the Athabasca and Mackenzie valleys of the most extensive petroleum field in America, if not the world."

In 1926, Karl Clark of the University of Alberta received a patent for a hot water separation process which was the forerunner today's thermal extraction processes. Several attempts to implement it had varying degrees of success, but it was 1967 before the first commercially viable operation began with the opening of the Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) plant using surfactants in the separation process developed by Earl W. Malmberg of Sun Oil Company.

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