Blue Flames

Every year Canada draws many billion feet of readymade fuel from Nature’s subterranean storehouses

VICTOR LAURISTON January 15 1929

Blue Flames

Every year Canada draws many billion feet of readymade fuel from Nature’s subterranean storehouses

VICTOR LAURISTON January 15 1929

Blue Flames

Every year Canada draws many billion feet of readymade fuel from Nature’s subterranean storehouses


ONE day last July beneath a broiling midsummer sun, a crowd of spectators from far and near gathered on a stretch of low-lying farm land near the mouth of the Canadian Thames, with eyes centred on the skeleton framework of a derrick and a little group of daring men working beneath it.

For nearly two months, men had been patiently drilling into the bowels of the earth.

At 3,300 feet, conditions were deemed auspicious for a “shot.”

The previous day, a thousand quarts of nitro-glycerine ■—a charge unprecedented in the history of oil-well shooting in Canada—had been lowered to the bottom of the hole with exceeding care, since the slightest mishap, the merest slip, the tiniest jolt would have obliterated not only men and derrick, but a large section of the landscape!

Now the time fuse was due to accomplish its appointed work.

Watchers counted the minutes.

For many moments nothing happened.

Then came a vast subterranean rumbling, followed by a mighty roar as a gray-black plume shot up through the derrick toward the blue sky. The plume rose steadily; the roar went on and on.

Presently with a sound like hail, fragments of stone rattled on the derrick timbers and the engine and boiler house.

The echoes of that big explosion reverberated through the length and breadth of Canada. The story of the “big shot” was telegraphed far and wide. A sudden demand sent the stock of the company soaring skyward.

But a great many Canadians, unfamiliar with the oil and gas business, inquired vaguely: “What is it all

about, anyway? What does this big shot signify?”

So far as the natural gas industry was concerned, perhaps it signified relatively little. A small company in search of production had drilled one more well to the utmost possible depth, had tried the biggest possible shot and had got in return a little gas—enough to justify yet another effort to find real production.

Yet enquiry disclosed other interesting facts. In the old Tilbury gas field, wells are being shot every week or two—sometimes merely to clean them out and bring them back into production. On almost the same day that the “big shot” was staged, a Kingsville operator, drilling in a previously neglected corner of the Tilbury field, without any blowing of trumpets or any huge audience looking on, brought in a gas well that made better than a million cubic feet a day. Big companies with huge capital investments, whose stock is so closely held that you scarcely ever see it quoted, are spending vast sums

annually to develop new gas reserves and to ensure the most efficient handling of the gas they have.

From Nature’s Retorts

NEARLY everybody knows what artificial gas can do, in domestic cooking, in heating, in refrigeration. But in Sarnia, Brantford, the Border Cities and scores of intervening communities, the blue flames that do so

much efficient housework are products, not of imported coal treated by intricate, man-made contrivances of ovens and retorts, but of a commodity stored ages ago by mysterious natural process, far beneath the fertile soil of Western Ontario.

Natural and artificial gas do much the same work; yet they do that work under conditions decidedly different. With artificial gas, each community has its local manufacturing unit. But with natural gas, the Border Cities,fortyfive miles west; Sarnia, sixty-nine miles north; Brantford, 140 miles east—all draw their supply through far-flung pipe lines from the same small field.

Long distance transmission is one of the striking features of the natural gas industry.

So is the immense gas production recoverable from a field of small superficial area. The Tilbury field is an irregular triangle, covering thirty-two square miles on the north shore of Lake Erie. Yet from this one field comes—and has come for twenty years—practically all the natural gas that supplies the three western counties of Essex, Kent and Lambton, and a major part of the natural gas supplying many urban centres farther east.

A third feature is the curious and little known circumstance that while artificial gas contains the exact number of heat units to do its work efficiently, lavish nature has packed the earth-born product with almost double that number of heat units.

To-day, in Ontario alone, natural gas serves approximately 85,000 customers, representing a population of nearly half a million. The investment in the Ontario industry alone is more than $30,000,000; its more than 1,200 employees have an annual wage roll of close to $900,000; its annual output of 7,000,000,000 or more cubic feet ranks fifth in value among Ontario’s minerals.

Yet natural gas is no Ontario monopoly. In the far east, New Brunswick has a prolific field at Stony Creek supplying the City of Moncton and the town of Hillsboro. In the prairie west, Alberta possesses more gas than it knows what to do with. Nor have the natural gas discoveries already made in these three provinces by any means exhausted Canada’s possibilities.

Ontario was, however, the birthplace of the Canadian natural gas industry.

Port Colborne in the Gas Light

TN THE year 1885, Port Colborne, A at the Lake Erie entrance to the Welland Canal, leapt into transient fame as the town that was lighted with natural gas. Actually, a hotel and a few stores enjoyed the mild

white light which was a miracle in those distant days of smoky oil lamps. The Port Colborne Natural Gas, Light and Fuel Company, of which C. McNeal was president, had drilled one well whose meagre production of 25,000 feet a day was the first natural gas ever used commercially in Canada.

But the real birthplace of the Canadian natural gas industry is an even more historic town at the other end of the Western Ontario peninsula—a town which to this day has never enjoyed the white light or the blue flame. At Amherstburg, famous for its associations with Sir Isaac Brock and the great Tecumseh, an imposing frame mansion still looks across the Detroit River toward Bois Blanc. In that house many years ago, Napoleon Alexandre Coste, a French engineer who had helped De Lesseps build the Suez Canal, established a Canadian home, where he nursed ambitions—futile, alas!—to serve his country at Ottawa.

There his son, Eugene, born and brought up in an eminently scientific atmosphere, brought home from Paris new ideas in petroleum geology. Applying these ideas to the terrain just east of Amherstburg, Eugene Coste argued that the Cincinnati anticline of Ohio must extend across Lake Erie into Essex County. He interested his father and some friends in the Ontario Natural Gas Company, and drove the stake for its Coste No. 1 well, near the little hamlet of Ruthven. On January 23, 1889, Coste No. 1 “came in.” With 10,000,000 cubic feet a day, it was Canada’s first natural gas gusher.

Almost simultaneously the Provincial Natural Gas and Fuel Company—for forty years dominated by an elder brother, D. A. Coste—drilled in Welland County near Port Colborne. Here, again, Eugene Coste located the first well; and here again, in August, 1889, natural gas was struck in large quantities.

In one short year, or less, Eugene Coste had made a tremendous contribution to Canada’s welfare. To his day, when petroleum geology was a primitive and little understood science, his feat of locating, a couple of hundred miles apart, two wells that simultaneously opened two great gas fields, bordered on the miraculous.

The Essex field developed rapidly. In 1904 it had an, open flow of 90,000,000 feet a day. The gas, regarded as inexhaustible, was piped to Windsor, Detroit and Toledo. Years later the government stepped in to prohibit export. But by that time the damage was done and the field was little more than a memory.

The Niagara field fared better. Though gas was at first exported to Buffalo, its export was discontinued in time to save the field. D. A. Coste was the directing power behind the Provincial Natural Gas, Light, Heat and Fuel Company; and that his counsels were shrewd and careful is evidenced by the fact that, after forty years, the original Welland field still yields a small production and the Provincial company is still functioning.

More than that, widespread drilling has since extended the producing area east into Wentworth and west into Haldimand, Norfolk and Brant. Still later, a separate field was developed in Elgin near Richmond and Vienna. In most of these areas the Dominion Natural Gas Company became ultimately the most influential factor in production and distribution.

A Wild Scramble For Wells

TN THE dying days of the Essex gas field, a small oil -*■ pool was opened north of Leamington. The Acme Oil Company, headed by John Kerr, a Scots-Canadian dental supply dealer at Detroit, raised a little money to drill in this field. When two wells had finished dry, the Acme crowd assembled at the old Huffman House at Leamington to discuss a project of blowing their remaining $1,000 on a farewell banquet.

R. L. Pattinson, now an operator at Chatham, suggested instead that they should drill one more well. He advised a location across the county line, in Kent. John Kerr fought stoutly for the third test, and won. Months later, in December,

1905, the famous Kerr No. 1 opened the Tilbury oil field. Along with its oil, Kerr No. 1 had a negligible 250,000 cubic feet of gas. This gas the operators voted a nuisance. Yet it was the beginning of great things. For, though the oil production of the Tilbury field speedily petered out, that well ultimately led to the development of the greatest gas field in Ontario.

The first real gas well, on the Tilbury field, Halliday No. 1, near Fletcher, was drilled by Eugene Coste and his associates. On the strength of its 5,000,000 feet a day, H. D. Symmes nervily undertook to lay a pipe-line to Chatham. The line was completed, more gas was discovered, and in the ensuing wild scramble for markets, rival producers laid lines to Windsor, Sarnia, Wallaceburg, Ridgetown, Petrolia and intervening communities. Ultimately the rival companies merged in the present Union Natural Gas Company of Canada, which controls the major part of the Tilbury production and supplies practically all the communities in the three western counties.

Meanwhile, the Dominion Natural Gas Company, operating in the Haldimand and adjacent fields, needed more gas to meet the demands of its consumers. H. D. Symmes thereupon secured production in the Tilbury field, organized the Southern Ontario Gas Company, and put through a pipe-line connecting the Tilbury field with the Dominion system. Thus, to-day, pipelines link the eastern and western fields.

Such, in brief, is the story of how the natural gas industry in Ontario grew up and attained its present form.

Obstacles to be Overcome

HPEN years ago, natural gas operators were decidedly pessimistic regarding the future of the Ontario industry. The early keen competition for markets had resulted in rates decidedly low in comparison with those charged for artificial gas. There can be no doubt that natural gas was used wastefully. The war-time demand for industrial fuels and for conservation of anthracite also subjected the Ontario gas fields to a terrific pull.

Depletion seemed imminent when, in 1917, the Ontario government intervened to conserve the supply. A first step was to prohibit the more wasteful forms of industrial use. A second was to impose more efficient methods of handling the product. A third was to make the gas worth saving by the simple procedure of increasing the price.

Out of the resulting fog of contention has emerged one indisputable fact: the Ontario natural gas industry, in the face of a gradually declining supply, to-day functions with remarkable efficiency. The service in recent years has been far better than ever before. Consumers are using the gas more efficiently and getting better results.

Even more striking, however, has been the revolution effected in the industry itself.

Any natural gasman will frankly tell you that the early operators did not realize what natural gas was

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worth as a fuel, how it should be sold or utilized, or even a few of the manifold things it could do.

The industry was a by-product of oil production. Oilmen with enormous quantities of gas to sell aimed to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

Had the gas been “got rid of” as quickly as the pioneer operators wished, no real natural gas industry would ever have developed.

But while petroleum petered out, natural gas continued to flow. A new generation of operators made the natural gas industry their special study. Their problem was; not to get rid of the gas as quickly as possible, but to make it last as long as possible.

For the past decade the counsels and methods of such men have, more and more, dominated the Ontario industry.

Handling the “Blue Flame” Army

EAST or west, in New Brunswick, Ontario or Alberta, the general principles governing the operation of a natural gas system are pretty much the same. Each field has, of course, its individual problems. In the West, drilling and operating costs are far higher than in the East. On the other hand, the older the field and the older the distributing plant, the more attention and upkeep it requires.

All along the line, from the gas well to the consumer, costly machinery and a wide variety of tools and replacement parts are required. The one thing a natural gas operator most keenly dreads is an interruption to the service; and the entire organization is on the qui vive to make good instantly any part of the system that goes out of commission.

In Ontario the Dominion Natural Gas

Company operates from Leamington on the west to Dundas on the east, drawing gas from half a dozen different fields. The Union Natural Gas Company system reaches from the Border Cities on the west to Ridgetown on the east and Sarnia on the north. In Alberta the Canadian Western Natural Gas Company line, more than 160 miles long, draws gas from four fields and serves nearly a dozen communities, large and small.

Handling men and equipment distributed over such far-flung areas is a good deal like handling an army in the field. It is a more complicated task, also, than handling a much larger working force compactly assembled in a factory.

Yet this is the gas operator’s routine. To vary the monotony and add interest to his busy days and often interrupted nights he occasionally wrestles with a big problem. Here’s one:

In the rapidly growing Border Cities, not merely is the demand for gas increasing, but it fluctuates exceedingly. Most of the day, more gas comes through the pipe-lines from the field than the consumers need. But at certain hours the demand exceeds the available supply. For, no matter how keen the demand, a pipe line of given dimensions can deliver only so much gas in a given time.

Yet the average delivery is more than sufficient.

Suppose, though, instead of remaining in the line, the surplus gas delivered at off-peak hours could be stored as a reserve against the peak demand?

After much cogitation over the peakload problem, that idea suggested itself to gas company officials. Eventually, four Hortonspheres—huge spherical steel tanks—were built at the Border Cities end of the line. Now when more gas comes

through the transmission line than the Border Cities can use, it goes into these Hortonspheres. When the Border Cities demand more gas than the transmission lines can carry, these Hortonspheres feed their stored surplus into the mains.

The idea is as old as Joseph who made the fat Egyptian years feed the lean ones. Yet its practical application to the Border Cities problem involved an immense amount of work, and an outlay of around $250,000.

Another problem arose from the presence in certain gases, notably those of the Tilbury and Turner Valley fields, of a contemptibly infinitesimal .02 per cent, of sulphuretted hydrogen.

The gas itself smelt like rotten eggs. The fumes were indescribably irritating. When the Tilbury gas was first marketed the Kent and Essex consumers met the situation by tightening their plumbing, and turning to electricity for light.

But when, in Î913, the Southern Ontario Gas Company first delivered this same Tilbury product to Brantford, Woodstock and Ingersoll, the outcry was heard throughout the length and breadth of Ontario, even to Queen’s Park. The company built, at the Tilbury end of the pipe-line, a purification plant to extract the sulphur from its entire production. That plant is reputed to have cost $200,000. And after all that outlay, it had to be abandoned as unsuccessful.

Years later, a Pittsburgh company invented a process for purifying manufactured gas. Exhaustive experiments convinced the Union Natural Gas Company that this process might be applied to the sulphur gas of the Tilbury field. A plant was built at Port Alma, the gas field centre. For something like four years this plant has successfully purified every

foot of gas coming into the Union lines from the Tilbury field. The process is simple. Yet its practical application on so huge a scale involved an initial outlay of around $250,000. Now the Southern Ontario Gas Company has built and is successfully operating a plant of the same type.

A similar “scrubbing” plant treats the gas from the Turner Valley field which supplies Calgary’s domestic needs.

Paradoxically, these purification plants, which cost the companies so much, enable the consumers to use the gas more efficiently and cheaply.

“She’s In! She’s In!”

IN ONTARIO, the natural gas industry has reached a stage where singularly efficient methods are indefinitely prolonging the life of the field. Alberta’s problem is the far different one of finding markets for an immense quantity of surplus gas.

Alberta’s natural gas history begins with Medicine Hat—the town that was born lucky with “all hell for a basement,” as Rudyard Kipling picturesquely phrased it.

Toward the year 1905, gas indications were met in drilling for coal. Sir William Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, offered to furnish a drilling outfit if the town would foot the other bills incident to drilling.

Medicine Hat, hard up but optimistic, took the chance.

The drilling pay-sheets came in with haunting regularity. But the first testwell refused to follow suit. At 650 feet, gas was met with so much accompanying water as to render the strike worthless. “We’re stung,” thought the Medicine Hatters, but scraped the bottom of the civic treasury to drill deeper.

So, at least, says tradition. And another tradition avers that Medicine Hat was dead broke, or worse, when one day the citizens witnessed the astounding spectacle of their worthy mayor, minus hat, coat and official dignity, racing down the main street frantically shouting:

“She’s in! She’s in!”

The Medicine Hat field is municipally owned and operated. At one time street lights burned day and night because it was cheaper to let the gas burn than to hire men to light it and turn it off. To-day, its natural gas field is one of Medicine Hat’s great assets. Another is, of course, its unique and arresting name. There is a third—the spirit of indomitable optimism that gave the city a municipally owned gas supply and still throbs in every citizen.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was also a factor in the opening of the Bow Island gas field. Sir William Whyte, of the C.P.R. management, in 1910 interested Eugene Coste in gas discovered in a test well. Coste left his Ontario ventures to drill at Bow Island some of Canada’s largest gassers; and later to build a 161mile pipe-line connecting the field with Calgary and supplying Lethbridge and other Southern Alberta communities along the route.

Edmonton later aspired to duplicate Medicine Hat’s municipally-owned field. Citizens organized the Edmonton Industriál Association which drilled near Viking. Their well got gas in plenty. But arrangements for the municipality to take over the field fell through; and the venture ultimately passed into the hands of private interests which organized Northwestern Utilities, Limited, and piped the Viking gas to Edmonton. This company, and the Canadian Western Natural Gas, Light Heat & Power Company, which supplies Calgary, are under the same financial control. C. J. Yorath, president and general manager of both companies, who was previously city commissioner of Edmonton, has made the two systems models of efficiency.

It is hard for one who contemplates the present natural gas situation in Alberta to realize that a few years ago the industry there was critically ill—thought dying. Yet such was the case. I

Strenuous and costly efforts were put forth to find new fields. A few good wells were drilled near Barnwell. Monarch showed a tragic record of dry holes. Eventually a new field near Foremost was just making the company comfortable when those spectacular things began to happen which have made Alberta’s present-day natural gas problem so different from Ontario’s.

Through the Royalite Oil Company, the Imperial Oil, Limited, took a hand in the previously slow and uncertain development of the Turner Valley oil-field. Some gas had been developed there, and arrangements were made to sell this to the Canadian Western Company to meet the winter peak-load in Calgary.

Not long after—in October, 1924—the Royalite No. 4 gusher came in, with a daily production of 19,000,000 cubic feet of naphtha-saturated gas.

In the intervening four years this production has, if anything, increased. The Royalite has drilled more wells and got more gas. New companies have been born, and supposedly dead companies have proved that they were only sleeping. Result: right now the Turner Valley field has a steadily increasing quota of “wet gassers” producing from the “deep lime.”

Calgary takes practically all the gas the Royalite “scrubbing” plant can handle. The scrubbing plant, be it remembered, extracts that infinitesimally small percentage of sulphur. But what gas Calgary takes is inevitably limited by Calgary’s capacity to find uses for it.

As a result, an immense amount of gas is going to waste—blowing wide open, consumed in huge flambeaux. A recent estimate put the amount of waste gas at 50,000,000 cubic feet a day. But estimates, however recent, are at best uncertain; for every month sees one or two new wells brought in.

A few months ago several producers optioned their gas at a rate of five cents per 1,000 cubic feet. At that rate a minimum of $2,500 in singularly efficient fuel is daily blown into the air.

ONE’S first impulse is to say:

“Shut the gas in. Keep it till it’s needed.”

But this gas production is inextricably complicated with the production of crude naphtha. The Turner Valley crude naphtha is an exceptionally valuable product, higher in quality than any commercial gasoline. The average daily crude naphtha production of Royalite No. 4 alone is, commercially speaking, at current market prices, worth practically as much as all the gas wasted. This crude naphtha comes with the gas, is condensed from it by natural process incident to the release of the gas, and cannot be got unless the gas is disposed of.

To produce crude naphtha the wells must flow. Shut in the gas, and the crude naphtha production ceases. The amazing new oil development in Alberta will be stifled, set back for years, perhaps irrevocably ruined.

To this may be added the perhaps pertinent question:

“Can the gas be shut in?”

When Royalite No. 4 gusher started to gush, the drillers, as a matter of routine procedure, sought to cap the well.

A 3,000-pound control head was screwed to the six and a quarter inch casing and anchored by clamps to the eight and a quarter inch pipe. To the ton and a half cap was thus added a deadweight of eight tons of casing—nine and a half tons in all.

“There,” said the drillers, with satisfaction; “when we close the valve, that well can’t break loose!”

The valve was closed.

Inside three minutes the pressure gauge jumped from zero to 600 pounds. It climbed to 1,150 pounds; kept on climbing till it reached 2,500.

And then before the eyes of the astonished drillers, the control head with the eight tons of casing attached slowly rose, inch by inch, foot by foot, till the 3,000

pound valve was lifted clear through the top of the derrick. Then the entire towering column of metal swayed, crashed—and the gas burst forth again.

It took weeks of strenuous work, and cost a small fortune to extinguish the fire that followed.

Since then, the Turner Valley deep gassers have been partly shut in. What the pressure may be behind that gas none can tell, except that no gas field in the world can equal it.

The Alberta gas problem begins with the Turner Valley but does not end there. Everywhere, though, it is closely related to the potential development of great Alberta oil-fields, a subject in which Alberta is keenly interested and Canada should be just as keenly interested.

If an operator drilling for oil in old Ontario, Quebec or the Maritime Provinces, were to strike gas, he would have within easy reach markets ready and willing to pay a fair price for all the natural gas he could deliver.

In the western provinces, conditions are different owing to widely scattered communities and magnificent distances between them. In Alberta, moreover, every large market is already supplied from a proven field.

A FEW years ago a group of Lethbridge men drilled a few miles north of the Montana boundary. They struck no oil, but they did develop a big gas production. They shut off this gas, drilled deeper for oil, and got a second and bigger gas production. All told, the Rogers-Imperial gasser had a reputed open flow of 65,000, 000 feet a day. Discounting that figure even by fifty per cent, would leave the Rogers the biggest gas well in Canada.

There was no Alberta market within reach to absorb all that enormous amount of gas. Nor was there any market sufficiently near to justify a pipe-line. The result did not encourage further drilling for oil; since a gasser, in Ontario the oil man’s second chance, in Alberta represented as dead a loss as a dry hole.

Nor is the Rogers-Imperial the only well without a market. A few miles distant, at Erickson Coulee, Imperial Oil, Ltd., drilled for oil and got gas—10,000,000 feet a day—with no market. Northeast of Medicine Hat, a field at Many Islands Lake has gas. Big gas production has been developed in drilling for oil near Wainwright, of which gas the town of Wainwright absorbs a very small fraction. In the Peace River district huge gas flows have been met in drilling for oil. At Pelican Rapids on the Athabaska, a well drilled by the Dominion Government in 1897 got a gas flow of 3,000,000 feet a day, burned wide open for more than twenty years, and is now shut in. So are several wells drilled later by private capital, which struck, not oil, but unmarketable gas. In the northeastern corner of Alberta, Imperial Oil, Ltd., had a gasser in the Pouce Coupé district, good for 10,000,000 feet a day,shut in.

What to do with all this gas is Alberta’s problem.

Carbon black manufacture has been suggested as a possible output; but the Canadian demand for carbon black would absorb only a small portion of this gas. After being shut in for years, the RogersImperial gas is being exported to Montana; but both Dominion and provincial governments frown on export. A pipeline to Winnipeg has been mooted, but practical gasmen declare the cost financially prohibitive. Pipe-lines from eastern Alberta to the Saskatchewan cities might prove commercially justified; but Saskatchewan is right now eagerly testing her own natural gas possibilities nearer home.

One national possibility worth considering is the utilization of these vast quantities of gas as a source of cheap power. Such a development might transform the prairies and result in a new orientation of Canadian industry. In any event a natural resource of enormous value is largely going to waste owing to lack of any means for its immediate utilization.