Alberta and the British Empire


This is the first in a series of little known narratives linking World Petroleum Congress 2000 to past WPC meetings. Alberta’s “Responsibilities” to the British Empire were not achievable even at the time of the first Congress held in 1933 in London U.K.


With only a few seeps on the plains and an abandoned oil field at Waterton, Alberta was not ready to take on a totally unrealistic obligation forced on it by Ottawa in 1910, the first of countless disputes over the years. An Order-in-Council was passed giving the Crown “the right to expropriate all crude oil for the Royal Navy”. This was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, because he (and others)1 could see crude replacing coal.

To further ensure security of supplies, the colonies of the British Empire had conveniently discovered crude, notably Trinidad and Burma (1902). These outposts continued with others to furnish crude as shown on table below:

    (000’s bbls.)
“Colony” First Production 1939 1948
* Conventional crude only
** NW Coast of Borneo ruled by a Native Sultan with a British resident as advisor.
***“Rajah Brooke” British Protectorate
**** Malaysia total
Trinidad 1902 19.265 44,640
Canada 1857 7,838 521,585*
Bahrain 1932 7,500 14,400
Burma 1902 7,344 4,320
Brunei** 1928 5,417 324,000
India 1890 2,165 208,000
Sarawak*** -- 1,345 276,000****
TOTAL   51,347  
WORLD TOTAL   2,065,070 26,683,325


The Province of Alberta, now that it had acquired its mineral titles (1930-31) still had not achieved much by 1939 (Turner Valley 1936). The Department of Lands and Mines decided to publish a modest book: “The History of Petroleum in Alberta” with the fond hope that it would boost the British Empire’s total production, then only 3% of total world production. Alberta’s urgent need to discover crude was demonstrated in 1938 when a high-powered delegation looking for funding went to the U.K. and returned empty-handed. Nothing would materialize, because it would be another eight years before Leduc would burst on the scene with its hitherto unknown Devonian reef find.

hitherto unknown Devonian reef find. Two quotes from the book are instructive the responsibility for effecting a definite improvement in British Empire production would seem to rest to a considerable extent with Alberta.....and ......Further expansion of Turner Valley and bringing in of one or more major fields.....for the British Empire will be a definite factor in world oil is not unduly optimistic to expect that this may a future not very far removed.

But as we all know, the British Empire was already crumbling, Leduc would be the hoped-for goal to fulfill the Department’s prophecy in a way far beyond the wildest hopes of that little 1939 book.

Yet in 1933, the beginnings of OPEC were already evident, when Ottawa imposed an embargo on Baku crude in favour of Trinidad, even though Venezuela crude was being refined in Montreal.

1Marcus Samuel, later to become head of Shell Oil, had already been pushing Baku Oil to naval vessels.



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