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November 2000
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Microfossils: The Early Years of Plains Exploration | Dr. John Gates' presentation at the NCE Energy Trust Information Meeting | Canada Post Honours Early Petroleum Pioneer: Abraham Gesner "Father of the Oil Industry" | About David Finch

Microfossils: The Early Years of Plain Exploration

Presented by Dr. John Wall to the Petroleum History Society Luncheon Meeting - 27 September 2000
(edited by Aubrey Kerr and Neil Leeson, Directors, P.H.S.)

Dr. Wall's lifelong career in micropaleontology reaches back to the origins of Canada's post-World War II search for energy self sufficiency. John's presentation was highlighted by photos of George Dawson, Joseph Tyrrell and R. T. D. Wickenden, all of whom pioneered fossil identification and its use in the determination of stratigraphic relationships. John also shared slides of forams and field shots. Associate Cam Sproule pioneered correlating "beds with bugs" in his Moose Jaw office, where John received his first exposure to micropaleontology. The rest is history, as our speaker became one of a handful of experts recognized for his work and dedication to this science. Interested in Dr. Wall's videotape? Call Joyce Wright at 252-4143.

"There are many groups of microfossils - the ones we'll deal with are the foraminifera or forams (one-celled organisms similar to an ameba). Modern forams occupy a broad range of depths and environments. Average size is about 1/2 mm, but some groups are much larger - up to 25 mm or more. Dating and correlation of beds are supplemented by the determination of thermal maturity of associated sediments through observing the colour variation in forams - black indicates sediments cooked to such an extent that they are unlikely now to contain oil or gas. This procedure is a relatively recent development (the last 25 or 30 years).

"We will begin our historical review with George Dawson, born in Pictou, Nova Scotia. He had a severe deformity, a hunchback, with weak lungs, but he possessed amazing stamina and undertook many rigorous geological expeditions to B.C. and the Northwest Territories. His expeditions led to his publishing, in the Canadian Naturalist of 1875, a short paper identifying microfossils correlative with the upper or first white speckled shale horizon in Western Canada.

"Our next contributor was Joseph Tyrrell, patron for the Paleontology Museum in Drumheller. As an Ontario native, he started with the Geological Survey of Canada (G.S.C.) in 1881 as an assistant to George Dawson. He participated in fieldwork over much of Western Canada as well as in the Arctic and Hudson Bay regions. He is probably best known for discovering coal deposits and dinosaur remains in the Red Deer Valley. From his keen interest in mining, he became president of Kirkland Lake Gold Mines in 1924, serving for 30 years before retiring in 1954 at the age of 95.

"Robert T. D. Wickenden was born 1901 in Quebec. He went to the U.S. to attend university, first for undergraduate study at Brown, then Harvard in 1931 for his Ph.D. There, like most Harvard graduates, he researched with J.A. Cushman, the dominant micropaleontologist of that era who had his own private laboratory. In 1930 Dr. Wickenden was appointed micropaleontologist to the G.S.C., based in Ottawa. He began using forams to determine correlation of Jurassic and Cretaceous strata in the Western Plains and Foothills regions, becoming the pioneer of micropaleontology. In 1950 he established a G.S.C. divisional office in Calgary with staff transferred from Ottawa. He retired to Victoria in 1966 and died there in 1989.

"J. C Sproule was born in Grande Prairie, graduating in geology from the U. of A. in 1930 before schooling in Toronto and earning a Ph.D. in 1935. He joined the G.S.C. to undertake fieldwork in various regions of the country, including Alberta where he developed keen interest in Oil Sands. In 1939 he joined Imperial Oil. Despite lacking an academic background in micropaleontology, he championed applying bugs to correlate beds. As a result he recognized a dozen fossil horizons, with much lateral extent, which he used as a basis to compile structural maps. Regrettably his micropaleo work was never published.

"Finally is Arthur Nauss, born in Regina in 1915. He obtained a B.Sc. in geology at the University of New Brunswick in 1939, followed by a M.Sc. at McGill in 1940. When working for Imperial Oil in the Vermillion area in a core-drilling project during 1941-42, Aubrey Kerr served as field assistant. Art acquired a doctorate at Stanford University in 1943 based on comprehensive study of Cretaceous stratigraphy and micropaleontology of the Vermillion area. He participated in the Canol Project at Norman Wells before joining Pacific Petroleums and Bear Oil Company in Edmonton in 1948. In 1954 he joined Ted Link in a consulting partnership for two years before becoming managing director of Scurry Oil. After retiring in 1961, he moved to Vancouver and traveled extensively before his death in Switzerland in 1984. He is better known for using microfossils to help work out relationships of the various intertonguing marine and continental members of the Belly River Formation.

"Microfossils continued to be used exclusively as correlation markers for structural mapping until 1945 when Carter Oil, an affiliated Jersey Standard group company, introduced an electrologging unit designed for narrow diameter holes. The integration of the electrolog features with the microfaunal data from cores greatly facilitated the correlation of test holes. Alberta Devonian reef discoveries followed from 1947-52. The best known, Leduc, was discovered in February 1947 as a result of drilling on a seismic anomaly. Once one reef was found, methods other than seismic were used to locate others, such as the Acheson Field north of Leduc, discovered by California Standard in September 1950. As seismic records were poor in that area, the company undertook a slim hole drilling program and used a coal seam (Clover Bar) in the Edmonton (now Horseshoe Canyon) Formation to map structure.

"Slim hole drilling had become a firmly established exploration method, greatly expanding the Western Canadian oil and gas industry."


Highlights of Dr. John Gates' presentation at the NCE Energy Trust Information Meeting, 31 Oct 2000

(Gates is a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and is now a political and foreign affairs analyst.)

Worldwide oil consumption:
Now about 76 million bbls/day (MM b/d).
    In 2005 will be approximately 85 MM b/d.

Excess oil production - only 2.5 MM b/d worldwide. All from Saudi Arabia. Doesn't know of any country that's holding back production. OPEC won't be able to cap oil prices; too much demand.

US oil stocks at lowest level in 24 years.
    Number of active oil rigs in US is at lowest level since 1940.

Gas situation even worse than oil.
   • In 2000 demand for gas exceeded supply in U.S. for the first time in history.
    58 million US homes use natural gas compared with 10 million homes using oil.
    97% of future U.S. electricity generation is designed for natural gas, but not known where gas supply will come from.

Worldwide situation:
Middle East: Disruptions unlikely, all Middle East oil producers don't want them (oil prices are too good).

Persian Gulf - Iran and Iraq both producing at maximum capacity.
   Iraq - French and Russian companies have signed $11 b U.S. in oil investment agreements, so are hoping to have sanctions against Iraq removed.
   Iran - Serious economic troubles, particularly youth unemployment (ages 18-29: no jobs, riots, unrest, etc.).

Saudi Arabia - Emphasizing economic diversification, trying to decrease youth unemployment. Western companies now
being invited to explore for gas. Have decreased tax rates for foreigners and are allowing foreigners to own companies.
In 2000 Saudi government ran its 17th straight deficit, and the national debt stands at 120% of their national income.

Algeria - Government attempting to restore order; allowing for new gas exploration / discoveries.

Libya - Long-term sanctions have been dropped, allowing for increased opportunities for gas exploration.

Russia - Entire 2000 budget was $30 billion. Estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 bbls of oil leak from Russian pipelines every day. Widespread and blatant corruption makes any additional foreign investment unlikely.

Central Asia - All countries ending with "stan" have big problems with oil production logistics, corruption, etc.

Nigeria - Riots, corruption, ethnic conflict all hamper any increase in oil exploration or production.

Venezuela - President Chavez wreaking havoc on oil industry. 3MM b/d in production, but foreign companies and their expertise are leaving in droves; loss of about $7 b U.S./y in revenues.

Indonesia - produces 1.3MM b/month(Sept. 00). New president hopeless, much violence, oil/gas expansion unlikely.

Mexico - PEMEX constantly overstates oil reserves, not heavily involved in exploration, so difficult to estimate future production. Have made inquiries about importing gas from the U.S. and Canada.


  • Oil and gas demand will remain high.
  • Outside North America and North Sea - serious problems exist with oil/gas industries.
  • China is now importing oil for first time ever.
  • OPEC expansion of oil production? Not likely outside Saudi Arabia.
  • Problem - cost of exploration and need for good return on investment.
  • Oil supply interruption? Grave problems would result; even losing 1-4 MM b/d would be problematic.
  • Shift from long-term oil contracts to buying on the spot market was a bad idea; increased price volatility.
  • Natural gas is plentiful worldwide, but just not where the consumers are; so need transport mechanisms (ships, pipelines). No short-term solution to natural gas shortage in U.S.
  • U.S. is boxed in; needs electrical power, but can't generate power through nuclear plants; coal is a no-no; oil and gas still most acceptable option.
  • Demand for electricity in U.S. will drive / keep oil and gas demand high, so high prices will remain.


Canada Post Honours Early Petroleum Pioneer: Abraham Gesner "Father of the Oil Industry"

Stamp honoring Abraham Gesner "Father of the Oil Industry"The stamp depicted here was issued last spring by Canada Post in their extensive "Millennium" collection. It came out as part of a panel of four stamps, the others being:

  • George Klein "Canada's Inventor of the 20th Century",
  • Alexander Graham Bell " An Inquiring Mind," and
  • Joseph-Armand Bombardier "Getting Around in Winter'.

This is the second time that the early work of Gesner on kerosene production has been highlighted by Canada Post - a 1988 stamp noted this 1846 accomplishment.

The following section from Georg Hansen's August 1988 article in the Petro-Philatelist (p. 13) on this subject is included for the interest of our members.

"Well, what happened in 1846 and before? A man of various talents, Nova Scotian Dr. Abraham Gesner was aware of the acute need for new illuminating oils as the supplies of whale oil - which had been for about 200 years the most widely used illuminant - began to diminish. Physician Dr. Gesner, being also a geologist and chemist, utilized existing facilities of coal oil works to produce an illuminating oil from the so-called Trinidad pitch (asphalt from the famous Trinidad "Lake') which he decided to call "kerosene". Unfortunately that particular oil had a rather disagreeable odor. Then he remembered a recently discovered vein of asphalt near Hillsborough on the Petitcodiak River in Albert County, New Brunswick called "Albert Mineral." From it he prepared kerosene by heating it to a high temperature in a closed retort. Then he demonstrated the now essentially odorless, clean-burning kerosene at public lectures on Prince Edward Island in August 1846.

"For nearly a century the opinion was wrongly held that Gesner's kerosene was derived from coal. Investigations by Kendall Beaton, however, confirmed the hydrocarbon origin. Beaton published Gesner's patent of 1854 in which can be read "I, Abraham Gesner, late of the City and County of New York, now of Williamsburg, in the County of Kings and the State of New York, have invented and discovered a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene, and which may be used for illuminating and other purposes ... I obtain this product from petroleum, maltha or soft mineral pitch, asphaltum, or bitumen wherever found, by dry distillation and subsequent treatment with powerful reagents and redistillation".

About David Finch

Until the 1980s, few Canadians paid any attention to the history of the petroleum industry. This presentation reviews the projects and the people that collected the stories of the oilpatch over the last two decades and the ways in which this important material was preserved for the future. The speaker will also analyse the factors that contributed to this revival of interest in the petroleum industry and warns of current trends that threaten once again to bury "the story of oil."

David is a long term member of the Society, a prolific writer and the 1999 recipient of our Lifetime Achievement Award.

David Finch spoke to the Petroleum History Society's Awards Luncheon on November 29, 2000 on:


See summary of talk in the January 2001 issue of Archives.


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