Flaring Gas At 'Hell’s Half Acre'
January 7, 2019
Whispers of seeping gas near Sheep River in Alberta’s foothills grabbed the attention of one rancher and businessman. Scooping up the bubbling substance into jars in spring of 1911, William Stewart Herron discreetly sent samples away for examination; when his hopes were confirmed, he hastily purchased thousands of acres of property and received mineral rights to Turner Valley lands. After a three-year push to gain investors for petroleum exploration, triumph came in a gush in 1914. Herron struck unrefined condensate! Um, rather, he struck oil!
Seven years later, a massive discovery erupted deep out of the earth at another well. (The reserves at the first rigs, named Dingman No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 for drilling supervisor A.W. Dingman, were achieved at a comparatively shallow level.) Then the area at No. 4 abruptly became Hell’s Half Acre. Literally.
After the initial discovery of petroleum, the Turner Valley Gas Processing Plant was constructed in 1914, with buildings and equipment that were changed and repurposed as needed. Operations slowed during the First World War, but the need for oil — and lots of it — roared loud.
Automobiles, machinery, ships and aircraft all required fuel. Small petroleum firms had trouble finding a foothold. Then Imperial Oil, the Canadian branch of American company Standard Oil, stepped in after a fire destroyed Calgary Petroleum Products’ gas processing plant.
Imperial Oil, “seeking an entry point into the new and potentially rich Turner Valley field, purchased the remains of the plant in 1921, along with the company’s wells,” Sandy Gow said in “Roughnecks, Rock Bits, and Rigs: The Evolution of Oil Well Drilling Technology in Alberta 1883-1970” (University of Calgary Press 2005). “Imperial then formed the Royalite Oil Company Limited to operate both the production and processing sides of the field.” (The Dingman rigs were renamed Royalite No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3.)
“Spudding in” the Royalite No. 4 well in September 1923, Imperial Oil was looking for oil, not gas. The company “wanted to prove that Turner Valley wet gas was coming from a deeper crude oil-producing stratum,” according to Gow. (“Spudding in” means drilling at the surface with a larger bit, then installing casing and cement to prevent contamination of ground water. Also, wet gas contains condensable hydrocarbons or other forms of liquid.)
Shacks sprouted up and camps emerged to house expanding teams of oilfield workers. The first buildings were slapped up by the company, temporary bunkhouses with single rooms, basic furniture, a cookhouse, and shared washrooms. Soon, workers desired better accommodation for themselves and their families, plus management and professionals required improved housing as well.
A new form of portable housing for workers was developed at Turner Valley, Alberta Culture and Tourism said in “Challenging Times: 1921-1938, Turner Valley Gas Plant.” The buildings were “small shacks, typically 12 by 24 feet, consisting of two rooms and resting on skids to allow them to be moved to a new location.”
More substantial dwellings were built for upper-level staff at the Royalite-planned community nearby, unofficially termed “Snob Hill.” (Social divisions were painfully clear.) “In addition to having more spacious houses and beautiful landscaping, residents of Snob Hill enjoyed greater amenities, most notably indoor plumbing, then the majority of the region’s population.”
There was good reason for improved worker comfort. Locating gas at 539 metres, the well produced nearly 200,000 cubic metres of gas per day. New pipelines were recently installed, ready to transport the gas to Calgary. The 7.5-to-10-cm-diameter pipelines were installed by manual labour. Digging the trench with picks and shovels, 1.2 to 1.5 metres deep, heavy pipes were lifted off wagons and dropped one by one into the trench. Pipe ends were threaded for joining together. Coated with tar or grease and wrapped with burlap to protect from the pipe-bursting ravages of rust, the last step was burying the pipeline under soil.
Well pressure at Royalite No. 4 had eased by spring, slowing production. Renewed drilling got underway, and at 1,000 metres, the drill reached harder Madison limestone. Orders came to halt the job. Ignoring instructions, the workers kept the drill going. One hundred metres further in, the drill bit got firmly stuck.
“On October 14, during an attempt to retrieve the drill bit, the well suddenly blew in at a rate of 20 million cubic feet of natural gas a day,” Alberta Culture described. For its spectacular power and size, Royalite No. 4 was dubbed the Wonder Well.
The wet gas find was “rich in hydrocarbon liquids and, when passed through a surface separator, produced 600 barrels per day of ‘naptha’ or ‘water-white gasoline,’” Freehold Petroleum and Natural Gas Owners Association stated in “1920’s: Turner Valley Controversy.” The well was regarded as Alberta’s first encounter with noxious sour gas. Mixed with hydrogen sulfide, it smelled like rotten eggs, and was so very flammable.
Days later, “the gas ignited on October 19 while the crew was trying to clear the drilling equipment from the well and bring the flow under control.” Fuelled under high pressure, the glow of the furiously billowing, infernal blaze could be seen almost 150 kilometres away at Lethbridge. Devouring the rig’s wooden construction in short order, the gas fire burned on for several weeks, until “a team of experts from Oklahoma used steam and dynamite to extinguish the flames and prevent it from reigniting.”
“After the blowout, the ‘sour’ gas … was piped to a nearby coulee and flared,” Tony Seskus said in “Part 1: Calgary goes ‘oil crazy’ after Dingman discovery,” Calgary Herald, May 13, 2014. Flaring was common practice in oilfields, and other locations, where excess natural gas was burned off. While necessary occasionally, flaring was later considered a waste of resources. As the flare roared and burned bright day and night, “the area became famously known as “Hell’s Half Acre.’”
Regarded as one of the province’s most profitable wells, Royalite No. 4 produced more than one million barrels of naphtha in a five-year time span. “By the 1930s, it produced nearly three million cubic feet of gas daily, sending much of it to Calgary by pipeline,” Seskus added. A crude oil reserve was at last located under the gas reserves in 1936, sending Turner Valley to peak output until dropping off in 1942. More wells, other locations, competing companies, carried on the quest over the decades with the boom and bust of the oil business.
As rich in natural resources as Alberta oilfields are, the province did not have Canada’s first marketable oil well. (The first western oil well was drilled in 1902 at what is now Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta.) The honour of first commercial oil well goes to southern Ontario and James Miller Williams, dug in 1858 at Oil Springs, near Sarnia. The well produced 50 barrels a day.
“A few kilometres north of Oil Springs is the small town of Petrolia. … Wealthy oilmen builders and merchants erected their fine mansions, an opera house, and a racing track,” Fathi Habashi, a professor at Laval University, said in “The First Oilwell in the World” (Bulletin of University of Illinois’ School of Chemical Sciences, 2000). However, “oil field fires destroyed many early frame buildings” and “as a result, fires stations were as important to the community as the oil derricks.”
The Royalite Company Limited, Turner Valley Oilfield, and Turner Valley Gas Plant were designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990. Named a Provincial Historic Resource as well, the region is respected as “Alberta’s first great oilfield.” Visit YouTube for a virtual tour of the engaging site.
Source: The Whig