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January 2001
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Petroleum History: Then and Now | About Willem Langenberg

Petroleum History: Then and Now

Presented by David Finch
to the Petroleum History Society Luncheon Meeting - 24 November 2000
(summarized by Neil Leeson, Director, P.H.S.)

Although viewers of popular television history channels like The History Channel, A&E, or Discovery Channel might be hard pressed to agree, wars or natural catastrophes are not the only topics comprising the study of history. Western Canadians might want to visualize the landscape and culture of the Prairies today if abundant natural resources were not part of our heritage. Better still; consider Canada's fragility in the theatres of sovereignty and world peacemaking. The characters and personalities that championed the discovery, harnessing and application of oil and gas warrant no less than recognition by future generations. Each of us in today's oilpatch benefits from the results of an insatiable purpose, then and now - "the thrill of the hunt".

"How did I get so involved and committed with preserving past, current and future Canadian history? My thirst for Canadian oilpatch history evolved from my Master's Degree thesis on Turner Valley while attending the University of Calgary. To my surprise, Canada and Venezuela share 1914 as the inaugural year of world-class resource discoveries at Turner Valley and Lake Maracaibo. Given being born in Cuba, raised in Venezuela and schooled in California, being in the right place, at the right time, for the right reason may be the only plausible explanation for my determination to research and record Canadian oilpatch history. During my university years of the early 1980's, relatively few books had been published to enhance my study of the oil and gas industry in Canada. Although individual relevant releases appeared in 1917, 1958, 1970, 1975 and 1979, these works were generally written by neither Western Canadians nor historians! When expressing my curiosity over this seeming indifference to one of my Professors, I was informed that Canadian history was still too uneventful to attract authors and researchers. In other words, if events happened in your lifetime they are too young to be worth studying.

"It has only been in the last twenty years that organized historical oilpatch research has evolved, mainly due to organizations like the Glenbow Museum, which contribute finding resources, encouragement and venue for collections of videos, manuscripts and artifacts. Newer entities like the Petroleum Resources Communication Foundation, aided by Provincial Government support, strive to improve dissemination and distribution of this research and motivate the authors among us to preserve the past. Unfortunately, the corporate oilpatch has undergone a significant change of attitude toward promoting future profit growth at the expense of avoiding any exposure to the past that is contrary to this dogma. Rare is an energy firm that has even retained its library."

Aided by the theatrical talents of Gordon Pengilly (Playwright) and Thomas Usher (Director), a twenty minute play (a first for P.H.S. luncheons) of rhyming verse dramatized oilpatch heritage, including:

  • The scene on a farm somewhere in Alberta during the Leduc discovery era;
  • The plot being a father-and-son exchange on working in the patch versus staying on the farm;
  • The message being that the meaning of son's quest for adventure is no less important than that of the farming heritage to father;
  • The conclusion relates the son's rise to adulthood through various experiences in the field.

"Now that history preservation has new sources of funding, like Lotteries and Gaming, our sights should be set higher. The future should bring advancements in major studies like decade-by-decade comparison of population booms and busts, expanded internet sites, aggressive video and feature film undertakings, a Chair of Petroleum History at the University of Calgary or Edmonton, recognition of Fort McMurray and Leduc as Provincial Historical sites. Last but not least, secure a lasting home for our heritage material and having this public facility, or wings of it, named after our oilpatch legends like Aubrey Kerr and Ned Gilbert, to name a few. Only then should we consider our work as historians meaningful and complete."


About Willem Langenberg, Ph.D., P. Geol., Alberta Geological Survey (A.G.S.)

Willem Langenberg brings a wealth of historical and technical knowledge concerning Alberta's heritage. Willem has authored or co-authored thirty refereed articles in scientific journals, four A.G.S. Bulletins and four A.G.S. Earth Sciences Reports as well as many A.G.S. open file reports, technical talks and poster presentations. He has a longstanding career in structural geology and is currently Senior Geological project-leader of a study on Alberta's Coalbed Methane Resources.

Willem's topic (at P.H.S. Luncheon on January 24, 2001) deals with the formation of the province's Scientific and Industrial Research Council on January 6, 1921. Major challenges at that time included the utilisation of the tar sands, the classification of coals, the establishment of salt reserves and the assessment of petroleum resources potential. Under the guidance of Dr. John Allan (in tribute to his mountaineering quests, Mount Allan bears his name) and university personnel, this organization gradually evolved into the Alberta Research Council. Early accomplishments included Ft. McMurray salt exploration (1921), Drumheller coal potential (1922), Nordegg coal potential (1923), Alberta's first coalfield maps (1924) and Foothills geology (1925).

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


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