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Canada’s Natural Gas History

Natural gas was discovered in Canada in 1859. Today, we know that natural gas is a valuable resource with many uses, but it wasn’t always so. In the early days, oil was the desired resource. Today, worldwide demand for natural gas is growing, and Canada’s production is growing to meet these demands.

Although natural gas has recently gained more notoriety, its history actually goes back to the mid-1850s. Natural gas was discovered in:

  • New Brunswick – 1859
  • Ontario – 1866
  • Alberta – 1883
  • Offshore Nova Scotia – 1967

Today, we know that natural gas is a highly valuable resource with many uses – but it wasn’t always so.

The Beginnings of Natural Gas Production

In the early days, oil was the desired resource and natural gas was considered a nuisance because it was dangerous to use and difficult to refine. In the 19th century, although developers found a way to remove water from natural gas, it was still largely used just as it came from underground. More often, natural gas was simply flared (burned) to get rid of it.

Commercial development of natural gas presented a number of technical challenges such as how to remove impurities from the gas stream, how to efficiently transport gas and how to make it safe for use in residential and industrial applications.

Early Discoveries of Natural Gas

In 1890, an exploratory well drilled near Medicine Hat, Alberta, struck natural gas (they were looking for coal). This discovery led to commercial development of the Medicine Hat field in 1904, providing natural gas for domestic use and street lighting. Similar services began in Calgary in 1910 and by 1913, several other Alberta towns were using natural gas.

The first processing plant designed to remove hydrogen sulphide (H2S) from natural gas was built in Port Alma, Ontario in 1924. A year later, another plant was constructed at Turner Valley, Alberta to process gas for the Calgary and southern Alberta market. In these early times, processing plants were small and located close to major consuming markets, but in 1957 a large plant was built near Fort St. John in northeastern B.C. This facility was bigger than all 11 existing plants combined, and set the stage for today’s modern natural gas processing plants.

Natural Gas Production Today

Techniques for extracting and producing natural gas have evolved over the years. As a result, natural gas found in “tight” rock formations (few or very tiny pore spaces where the gas is trapped) can now be produced through hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing initially began as an experiment in 1947, with further experiments to follow using different types of injections agents. The process was first patented in 1949 by the Haliburton Oil Well Cementing Company in Oklahoma and Texas.

Hydraulic fracturing was first used in Canada in Alberta in 1953 to extract oil in the Pembina oil field. Since then over 170,000 oil and gas wells have been fractured in Western Canada. Horizontal oil and gas wells were used exclusively until the 1980s, when operators in Texas began trying out horizontal drilling (where the well is turned sideways after a certain depth) to open up previously inaccessible areas. Today, horizontal drilling is commonly used not just by oil and gas companies, but the technology has been borrowed by other industries such as construction companies to build underground pipelines for water and gas transportation in cities.

As worldwide demand for natural gas has grown over the years, technology was developed in order to ship natural gas from producing regions or countries to consumers who need it, through the process of creating liquefied natural gas (LNG).