An oil seep
The ancient city of Babylon
Seneca Oil Spring
  • Lambton County oil field, Ontario, ca. 1860. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-302-9

    The first oil well in North American is drilled.

    The first oil well in North American is drilled in Lambton County, Ontario, in 1857/58. Although the oil field here is relatively small and nearly exhausted after a few years of production, it marks the beginning of Canada’s oil industry. The region, particularly around Sarnia, continues to be a major centre for petrochemical research and refinery operations.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-302-9

  • George Mercer Dawson (standing centre) and his survey party, 1879. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-302-7

    Oil seeps in southern Alberta are documented.

    George Mercer Dawson conducts numerous surveys of western Canada and its resources for the International Boundary Commission (1873-1874) and the Geological Survey of Canada (1875-1901). In 1874, he reports oil seeps in the Waterton area, 225 km (140 mi.) south of Calgary.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-302-7

  • Rocky Mountain Development Company oil well in the Waterton region, ca. 1902. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-1585-7

    The first producing oil well in Western Canada is drilled.

    In 1902, the Rocky Mountain Development Company drills a well on Cameron Creek (in what is now Waterton Lakes National Park). It is the first producing oil well in western Canada.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-1585-7

  • Calgary Petroleum Company wells (Dingman No. 1 and No. 2), Turner Valley, 1914. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, P1304

    Petroleum is found in Alberta’s Turner Valley.

    On May 14, 1914, the Dingman No. 1 well strikes wet gas in the Devonian reef formation deep under the surface of Turner Valley, Alberta. Other wells are soon drilled, and the Turner Valley field becomes Canada’s largest oil and gas producer.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, P1304

  • Oil flowing from British Petroleum No. 3 in the Wainwright oil field, 1925. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A10793

    A new discovery rekindles hope that large reservoirs of oil will be found beneath Alberta.

    Discovered by British Petroleum in 1923, the large Wainwright oil field revives hopes for the Alberta oil industry.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A10793

  • Signing of the federal-provincial agreement transferring natural resources to the Province of Alberta, December 14, 1929. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A1092

    Control of natural resources is transferred to the provincial government.

    The agreement transferring jurisdiction of natural resources from the federal to the provincial government is signed in Ottawa, December 14, 1929, and enacted the following year. (Seated, starting second from left, are Hon. Charles Stewart, Minister of the Interior and Mines; Rt. Hon. W. L. Mackenzie King, Prime Minster of Canada; and Hon. John Brownlee, Premier of Alberta.) The transfer allows Alberta to realize the full economic potential of the oil and gas resources found within its borders.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A1092

  • Oil well Royalties No. 1 as a gusher after striking oil on June 16, 1936. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-2335-2

    The Oil Column phase of Turner Valley development begins.

    The Royalties No. 1 oil discovery, in the Mississippian geological structure under Turner Valley, sets off another oil boom for the region.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-2335-2

  • Oil well Imperial Leduc No. 1 blows in on February 13, 1947. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, P1342

    Leduc No. 1 sets off the modern oil sector in Alberta.

    Imperial Leduc No. 1 blows in, setting off the modern oil sector in Alberta. The discovery of the Leduc oil field, then the largest and most lucrative yet found, comes after decades of fruitless searching and drilling. It marks the beginning of Alberta’s modern oil industry and completely revolutionizes the province’s economy and prospects.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, P1342

  • Corner of Railway Avenue and Main Street, Redwater, Alberta, 1948. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A9763

    Additional oil discoveries confirm Alberta as a major oil producer.

    Oil derricks dot the landscape, and smoke from a new oil well rises from the horizon beyond the hamlet of Redwater. On the heels of the Leduc discovery, Imperial Oil finds a second major oil field near Redwater, northeast of Edmonton. Larger and easier to access than Leduc, this discovery confirms Alberta’s future as a major oil producer.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A9763

  • A section of the Interprovincial Pipeline being laid near Regina, Saskatchewan, 1954. Source: Julian Biggs/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-122742

    The Interprovincial Pipeline expands the market for Alberta’s oil.

    Completed between Edmonton, Alberta, and Superior, Wisconsin, in 1950, the Interprovincial Pipeline is a vital transportation link that makes Alberta’s oilfields financially viable. By 1956, the pipeline is expanded and extended to Sarnia, Ontario, and is transporting more than 200,000 barrels a day.
    Source: Julian Biggs/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-122742

  • Laying the Trans Mountain Pipeline through Jasper National Park and the Yellowhead Pass, 1952. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A8495

    Alberta’s oil production is connected to Pacific markets.

    The Trans Mountain Pipeline, completed from Edmonton, Alberta, to Burnaby, British Columbia, in 1953, opens up Pacific markets for Alberta’s oil production.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A8495

  • A well-site geologist stands in front of the Pembina No. 1 well, 1953. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-5103-9

    “Fracking” opens up previously inaccessible oil reservoirs.

    A wellsite geologist stands in front of the Pembina No. 1 oil well. A joint venture of two oil companies, this well successfully strikes oil about 100 km (62 mi.) southwest of Edmonton. The oil at Pembina is accessed by a developing technology called sandstone fracturing or “fracking.” This technology makes it possible to extract previously inaccessible oil reserves and becomes more widely used throughout Alberta in the following decades.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-5103-9

  • A seismic crew unloads supplies in the Rainbow/Zama region, 1950. Source: Glenbow Archives, S-236-46

    Oil is discovered in Alberta’s remote northwest.

    In 1965, the Banff Oil Company drills successful wells in this region. They are the first major oil discoveries in this remote area of Alberta’s northwest.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, S-236-46

  • A long line of cars forms at a gas station in the 1970s. Source: Library of Congress, LC-U9-37734-16A

    The OPEC oil embargo rocks energy markets.

    Starting in 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) begins restricting oil exports to much of the Western world, including Canada. Fuel shortages become common, and the price of Alberta oil, one of the few remaining reliable and friendly sources of oil for industrialized nations, skyrockets.
    Source: Library of Congress, LC-U9-37734-16A

  • An aerial view of the oil fields of the Pembina and West Pembina region. Source: WikiCommons/Qyd

    West Pembina injects new life into Alberta’s oil sector.

    In October 1977, Chevron Oil opens the West Pembina oil field. It is the largest discovery in ten years and revives hopes for Alberta’s oil sector, which had been suffering from a lack of new discoveries over the previous decade.
    Source: WikiCommons/Qyd

  • Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minster of Canada (right), and Peter Lougheed, Premier of Alberta (centre), hold a joint press conference announcing a compromise on some provisions of the federal National Energy Program (NEP), September 1, 1981. Source: CP Photo/Dave Bunston, 03263367

    The NEP alienates Alberta’s oil patch.

    The National Energy Program is created by the federal government in 1980 to ensure a reliable and affordable supply of oil and gas for Canadian industry. The provincial government perceives it as an unwarranted intrusion into its affairs and as sacrificing Alberta’s interests in favour of those of Central Canada. Although a compromise is reached in 1981, bitter memories of the NEP continue to characterize Alberta-Central Canada relations.
    Source: CP Photo/Dave Bunston, 03263367

  • Peter Lougheed, Premier of Alberta (right), greets Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister of Canada (left), 1984. Source: CP Photo/Pat Price, 673836

    The Western Accord brings NEP regulation to an end.

    Within a year of this meeting, the Governments of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan will negotiate the Western Accord, which ends the National Energy Program, deregulates oil prices and encourages new investment in western Canada’s oil sector.
    Source: CP Photo/Pat Price, 673836

  • Smoke and steam billow from an Imperial Oil refinery in Calgary. Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-2864-20312

    Environmental concerns challenge the practices
    of the petroleum industry

    Images such as these feed concerns through the Western world about environmental damage due to industrial development. In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development releases the report Our Common Future. It encourages the concept of “sustainable development” in an attempt to balance First World concerns about human rights and environmental degradation with Third World nations’ need for economic development. Although not directly related to the oil sector, this concept forms the basis for future anti-pollution and climate change strategies.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-2864-20312

  • Protestors gather in Calgary during the 16th Annual World Petroleum Congress, 2000. Source: CP Photo/Adrian Wyld

    The World Petroleum Congress meets in Calgary.

    The World Petroleum Congress, held for the first time in Canada, attracts industry and political leaders from around the world. A parallel counter-congress and protests occur in the city at the same time. As the new millennium approaches, Alberta’s oil sector faces pressure from increasingly dedicated and organized environmental and human rights activists.
    Source: CP Photo/Adrian Wyld

  • Heavy equipment at an oil sands mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, GR1989.0516.394#3

    The oil sands dominate oil production in Alberta.

    In 2002, conventional oil production in Alberta is surpassed by oil sands production for the first time - a sign of the changing focus of Alberta’s oil sector.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, GR1989.0516.394#3

Play Timeline


There are two theories about how oil is formed within the Earth’s crust, the Abiogenic (or Inorganic) Process and the Organic Process. The Abiogenic theory arose in the sixteenth century, but gained prominence in the early nineteenth century when scientists like Alexander von Humbolt and Dimitri Mendele’ev used the concept to explain the creation of petroleum. It holds that hydrocarbon fluids originate deep within

the Earth, having been either generated by the Earth’s own volcanic activity or deposited there by meteorites during the formation of the planet. Over the course of millions of years, these fluids have made their way towards the surface. The Abiogenic theory fell out of favour in the early 1900s, largely because it did not predict where oil deposits would be found.

The Organic theory likewise originated during the sixteenth century, and it is the most widely adhered to theory today. It holds that oil is derived from organic matter, the decomposed remains of prehistoric plant and animal life, beginning about 560 million years ago. As these plants and animals, primarily algae and zooplankton, died, they settled to the bottoms of ancient depressions, lakes and oceans. The decaying matter was covered with layers of mud and silt, which subjected them to high levels of heat and pressure. The organic material was converted to kerogen (a mixture of

organic compounds within sedimentary rocks). Increasing heat and pressure over a long period of time led to a process called catagenesis, which converts the organic matter into hydrocarbons by breaking the carbon bonds and forming new chemical bonds. Hydrocarbons in different states are created depending on the depth, period of time and amount of pressure. Oil is formed at relatively shallow depths over a period of about one million years and at temperatures ranging from 50° to
150°C (122° to 302°F).

Although most organic material deposits settled in horizontal layers, they seldom stayed that way. Pressures from below force oil deposits upwards, sometimes to the surface where they might form a “seep”, but usually they are trapped under a layer of non-porous or impermeable rock (typically shale, salt

and clay), where the oil forms reservoirs. These reservoirs are then subjected to tectonic pressures as the sedimentary rock of the Earth’s crust moves, folds, twists and lifts. These pressures force the reservoirs into a wide variety of formations, which are accessed by drilling.

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Zooplankton are microscopic marine animals. The word comes from the Greek zoon meaning “animal,” and planktos meaning “wanderer”.

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