Geoff Morrison is a bit of an amateur historian and, as the manager of British Columbia Operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), he has read extensively about the province’s oil and gas history, one full of the normal swashbuckling nature of resource development in Canada’s westernmost province.
While B.C.’s tremendous reserves of liquids-rich natural gas in the Montney, Duvernay and other regions in its northeast are now viewed as central to the future of Canadian energy, explorers in the 1920s and 1930s were looking for oil.
“Back then we were reliant on the U.S. for our oil and there wasn’t a market for natural gas,” Morrison said.
“You only used natural gas if it was close to the place where you were living.”
The search for oil and gas in B.C. didn’t start in the northeast, former president of the South Peace Historical Society Gerald Clare noted in 2003.
Clare traced the beginnings of B.C. oil and gas exploration to the Fraser Valley, where geologists thought there was a deep and productive sedimentary basin. But, aside from a few small gas discoveries, nothing of commercial value has ever been discovered there.
The search then shifted to Vancouver Island, where an area near Sooke attracted the Western Canada Prospecting Company.
“Beginning in 1910, three years of drilling produced nothing but disappointment for the company,” Clare said.
Others attempted to find commercial oil and gas in the Haida Gwaii Islands (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) and in the Flathead Valley, in the southwestern corner of the province. But once again the explorers found nothing in either location.
It was then that the search spread to Peace Country in northeast B.C. (a search that was also beginning in earnest on the Alberta side).
Evidence of hydrocarbons in Peace Country dated back decades, to as early as 1914. That’s when a young farmer named Blaine Pierce noticed a “black, oily seepage” discolouring the snow along the Pouce Coupe River, near Dawson Creek.
After he took a specimen to a laboratory at the University of Alberta, Peace Country’s early oil and gas rush in the Peace Country was on.
The most notable explorer was Northwest Oil, a subsidiary of Imperial Oil, which drilled in the area in 1921. Using a cable rig, oil and gas was discovered near the Pouce Coupe area—but more gas than oil.
In fact, so much gas was found that workers tapped the well for cooking, replacing firewood. But the gas line ruptured, leading to an explosion that resulted in several injuries. Northwest capped and abandoned the well.
However, interest in the area continued, and in 1936 Imperial drilled a well to 3,057 at Pouce Coupe. However, it was set on fire by arsonists, burning for two months, until finally being capped.
In 1937, the Guardian Oil Company began drilling nearby, close to the village of Bonanza, where it became so confident in a major oil find that it developed plans to build oil and gas pipelines to transport hydrocarbons to the Vancouver area.
Guardian’s Bonanza No. 1 well was “standing full of oil,” according to one observer at the time. A second rig was shipped to the area from Turner Valley.
Drilling continued throughout the World War II years, but major finds didn’t occur until 1948 and 1949, when drilling for gas began in earnest in the Pouce Coupe area on both sides of the border.
The General Petroleum Company, which had drilled four successful wells on the Alberta side, shifted to the Rolla, B.C. area, 15 km from Dawson Creek, near Pouce Coupe. By late 1948, production was reaching 70 million cubic feet per day.
The subsequent development of the province’s first gas processing plant at Taylor, B.C. in 1955 and of Canada’s first large diameter pipeline, which transported gas from Northeast B.C. and Alberta to the Vancouver area, laid the foundation for the gas boom that continues today.