Reflections of Ponoka: Alberta’s rich heritage, history of natural gas

The colorful and exciting history of our natural gas industry is older than Alberta itself.

The Royalite #4 Imperial Oil well in the Turner Valley field erupted from deep in the ground on Oct. 12

The Royalite #4 Imperial Oil well in the Turner Valley field erupted from deep in the ground on Oct. 12

The colorful and exciting history of our natural gas industry is older than Alberta itself.

Gas was first discovered here as early as 1885, when a water well drilled in southeastern Alberta suddenly produced natural gas, and then in 1897 under strong government supervision, a well was drilled at Pelican Rapids, northeast of Athabasca. After producing gas, the well blew wild and extinguished itself a few years later, but this early activity would be the humble beginnings of a massive industry in Alberta that would employ thousands of personnel and fashion the successful future of our great province for over a century and continues to grow at an explosive pace.

It was in 1890 that the Canadian Pacific Railway placed the first commercial well into production at Medicine Hat, then in early 1908 Mr. Eugene Coste, a CPR geologist discovered what would later be known as the massive Bow Island gasfield 65 miles east of Lethbridge. In following up with a promise to supply gas to the growing population of southern Alberta, Coste formed a company to build the first pipeline from Lethbridge to Calgary. After obtaining the franchise in 1911 to supply gas to 1,500 customers in Calgary, the company completed the 16-inch, 170-mile long pipeline, which would be one of the longest transmission lines on the North American continent at that time. In just a few years The Canadian Western Natural Gas Company was supplying a first class natural gas product and service to the cities of Calgary and Lethbridge, as well as to 26 other southern Alberta communities.

At the other end of the province on Nov. 4, 1914, Mr. C.A. Flecklinger rode 80 miles on his motorcycle at lightning speed from Viking to Edmonton to announce that gas had been struck at the Viking/Kinsella field. With this discovery the prospect of providing abundant fuel and service to the City of Edmonton and district communities became a reality, and in 1915 the newly formed Northern Alberta Natural Gas Company took over the lucrative Viking franchise. With the onslaught of the First World War, the overwhelming demand for steel, the scarcity of labour, and ever-growing costs, made it impossible to complete the negotiations to build the proposed pipeline from Viking to Edmonton. Finally, in 1922 a franchise agreement was settled to supply gas to the City of Edmonton at a domestic rate of 46.5 cents a gigajoule and the way was cleared for the required transmission line to be built at a cost of $4 million.

Subsequent milestone negotiations also resulted in the formation of the Northwestern Utilities Company Limited, which would build the pipeline and distribution lines, and offer service to the City of Edmonton and other communities. The newly formed, and now longstanding company, opened its offices in June of 1923, the 77-mile long line and 80 miles of distribution pipe was completed in a record 116 working days, and Edmonton Mayor D.M. Duggan lite the flare and turned on the gas for 1,880 customers in the summer of 1923.

First Ponoka gas discovery a surprise

The first sign of gas in this area came during the construction of the Provincial Mental Hospital, which began in 1909. While drilling holes for building pilings workers discovered gas, which would eventually be used to fire up the huge power house boilers that would provide heat and service to the massive institution.

For several decades from 1920 and on, a host of gas companies worked very hard to supply their services to thousands of customers in the rapidly growing and thriving Province of Alberta. Northwestern Utilities would eventually serve 31 communities in central Alberta, and the gas was turned on in Ponoka in 1946 with a gala flare lighting ceremony on 50th Street in front of hundreds of happy town and rural citizens. Meanwhile, the resounding discovery of natural gas in Turner Valley in 1924 would answer the needs of thousands of southern Alberta customers for many decades, while that glorious and oily ‘day of discovery’ at present day Devon in 1947 has served the vital gas needs of northern and central Alberta and far beyond.

Highlights of the early Alberta gas industry

On Oct. 12, 1924 there was a huge explosion at Imperial Oil’s famous Royalite No. 4 well near Black Diamond. Only a few months before, Imperial Oil was reeling from a succession of dry wells in the Turner Valley field that had cost them over $5 million and were ready to shut the operation down, but engineer Sam Coultis would encourage them to go just a little deeper. At beyond 3,730 feet this would be the deepest well in the province, but the massive strike would realize a daily flow of 21 million cubic feet of gas per day, plus 300 barrels of naphtha, an oily liquid that could be turned into gasoline. The company would call this their ‘wonder well’, but it was also a monster, which completely defeated the best efforts of the crew to control it, as well as destroying some of the heaviest and best equipment in Alberta in the dangerous process.

On Nov. 9 the wild well caught fire, sending a plume of flame shooting high into the air, and would not be tamed until December. The next problem was that there was simply no market for that much natural gas and 90 per cent of it had to be flared off, allowing southern Albertans to read their newspapers by the glow at night, but the heat would cause surrounding flowers, berries, and plants to mature four to six weeks earlier than usual. It was estimated that between 1924 and 1931 about 260 billion cubic feet of gas went up in flames, which also greatly reduced the pressure required to bring the valuable oil to the surface.

Because of the abundance of this wonderful fuel of nature in our province, and the careful planning and development that has gone into the natural gas industry, Albertans have and will continue to enjoy perhaps the lowest natural gas rates and first class service on the continent.

The Ponoka Stampede Association invites everyone to join in saluting the tremendous successes and contributions of our lucrative gas and oil industry during their 2012 (The Wild Wild West of ’36 Lives On) Stampede celebration from June 26 to July 2.