Remembering the Turner Valley Gas Plant

A movement is afoot to turn the industry cradle into a historic preserve

September 01, 2010

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Ian Clarke
Ian Clarke wants to commemorate the Turner Valley Gas Plant, rotten egg smell and all

A pungent whiff can still be had of the natural leak from a geological treasure chest that inspired the well which started Alberta on its path to become an international-scale energy supplier 96 years ago. During spring thaws, escaping methane soaked in gasoline-like “condensate” vapor makes frigid pools of water and slush left by melting snow foam, bubble and hiss.

No monument marks the seep that lured rancher William Herron into founding the western Canadian clan of oil go-getters by setting a famous example of hustling to raise money, recruit backers, buy mineral rights, and drill a gusher. The smelly cradle of industry and wealth beside the Sheep River lies off the beaten path behind a security fence around the mothballed Turner Valley gas processing plant about 60 kilometers south of downtown Calgary.

But the veil of obscurity may be lifted in time for the 2014 centennial of Alberta’s first commercially significant oilfield. After two decades as a ward of cultural and environmental protection specialists under provincial and national historic site designations, the old plant is poised for reconstruction as a landmark interpretive center.

The development plan by architect Lorne Simpson – in combination with the nearby towns of Turner Valley and Black Diamond, in picturesque settings and ranching regions in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains – has potential to put fresh life into Alberta’s image. The scheme would do double duty of putting a human face on the industry and tracing the evolution of provincial resource stewardship.

And industrialists, looking for counters to critics’ one-sided publicity portraits of Alberta oil as all evil, might at last throw their weight behind the interpretive center project. A half-day site tour and briefing this summer lured out representatives of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Small Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta, Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists, Gas Processing Association of Canada, Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists, Canadian Petroleum History Society, Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists, Canadian Association of Geophysical Contractors and Calgary Chamber of Commerce. The pitch for support is also being heard by the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, Petroleum Services Association of Canada, Alberta Enterprise Group and Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Out on the tour, Ian Clarke says, “The whole thing here is about the life of southern Alberta.” He has worked for 30 years on the preservation plan as regional director in Alberta Culture and Community Spirit’s historic sites and museums branch. “Our commemoration is about the beginnings of the industry here and what it meant for Alberta.”

Among its features, the place highlights entrepreneurial roots. Unlike big oil sectors in the Middle East, North Sea, Africa and South America, Alberta production is a case of homegrown enterprise coming first and turning in a strong performance that attracted global corporations.

Herron started the show by floating Calgary Petroleum Products Co. as an ambitious rancher from nearby Okotoks who saw a bigger future for the Turner Valley seep than its pioneer-era use as campfire fuel for cattle drives. He had a talent for selling his vision. He drummed up investment from local luminaries such as Sen. James Lougheed, R.B. Bennett and A.E. Cross. The visionary was also a realist. He understood that he lacked crucial technical skills. The top of the Turner Valley fossil-fuel vault was 800 meters underground. It was found because Herron recruited drilling expert Archibald Dingman, a veteran of the American industry’s 19th-century Pennsylvania cradle that the discovery well was eventually named after.

The Turner Valley plant began as hazardous equipment for separating hydrocarbon liquids from the initial discovery’s dominant natural gas. At the time there was only one other operation like it, in West Virginia. Local ownership lasted for six years until the plant burned down in 1920. Herron’s group could not afford to start over. Far larger Imperial Oil Ltd., majority-owned by an ancestor of ExxonMobil Corp., bought the plant for subsidiary Royalite Oil Co.

As a wealth and job factory, Turner Valley helped inspire an epic resource-rights political campaign that culminated in the historic transfer of constitutional title to Alberta’s mineral riches over to the provincial government from Ottawa in 1930. Coupled with recurring oil rushes, the switch set off a decade of legal and political battles that laid cornerstones of modern drilling, production, safety and environmental regulation by the province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board. The Alberta model in turn spread across Canada when the federal government created the National Energy Board in 1959 with ERCB veteran Ian McKinnon as its founding chairman.

The Turner Valley site traces parallel industry and government evolution. The onset, effects and costs of environmental regulation show, for instance, in structures for cleaning up “sour” gas steeped in lethal hydrogen sulphide. The plant originally vented hazardous waste into the atmosphere with tall exhaust stacks. But resulting rotten-egg odors, health risks and environmental threats lost their early acceptance as nasty but inevitable side-effects of economic success. A long history of ever-tighter ERCB controls began in 1952.

Since the plant shut down in 1985 and the site was turned over to the government, it has been plagued by vandalism, floods, and internal hazards such as asbestos insulation, soil contamination, and mercury leaks from old equipment. So far, about $16 million in public money has been spent on preserving and cleaning up the place to a point where it is safe to visit.

A 2003 flood put a stop to public tours. But access and guides are provided to industry groups. Clarke predicts that the historical site can be completed and reopened for another $8 million. Industry is being given open invitations to start Turner Valley partnerships ranging from construction support to education programs for school children. “It’s important for us to remember where this all came from,” says Clarke. “It’s important to remember the people that were at the plant and the society that grew up around it – the society of ranchers, farmers and oilmen that made this part of Alberta.”

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