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Sidney Clarke Ells (1878-1971)


It's fitting that Sidney Clarke Ells is being inducted into the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame this year, as 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of his first year in the oilsands. In 1913, Sidney undertook a detailed survey of the oilsands along the Athabasca River, the beginning of a 30-year career that both entirely predated commercial oilsands development and directly made it possible.

Educated at McGill University, Sidney spent a couple of years studying oil occurrences in the West Indies before joining the Dominion Department of Mines and heading west, where he spent most of the next 30 years studying the oilsands. His 1913 government report made him one of the first to advocate the potential value of the oilsands in and of themselves, rather than the possibility that they signalled nearby light oil, and he spent much of his career attempting to prove this. In 1915, Sidney shipped tons of oilsands by scow and dog to Edmonton and began to experiment with their use as paving material, with some success. The practice never really took off, but the oilsands pavement was not entirely replaced in Edmonton until the 1950s, and Sidney went on to pave roads with oilsands in Jasper, Alta., and Ottawa and sidewalks in Camrose, Alta., in the 1920s.

Between paving experiments and military service, Sidney conducted experiments on hot-water separation processes with oilsands samples he had sent from Alberta to the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, Pa., (now Carnegie Mellon University). In 1926, with Colorado oilman Max Ball's support, he drilled and cored oilsands in the Mildred Lake-Ruth Lake area, the Horse River area and east of the Steepbank area. He also "examined what was being done in other parts of the world with similar deposits," says historian Joyce Hunt, who nominated Sidney for induction into the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame.

In 1929, Sidney counselled Ball on the idea of developing production in the oilsands. Ball secured the last federal leases for oilsands properties and founded Abasand Oils Ltd., which launched, in 1941, one of the earliest attempts at commercializing the oilsands. Sidney also extensively documented the region, writing 26 official reports and preparing 15 maps, including topographical maps showing visible outcrops of bitumen formation. He compiled a comprehensive list of early wells that were drilled in the Athabasca region in search of oil, which has utility even today.

All of this work produced a great deal of influence for Sidney, particularly before control of oilsands resources was turned over to the provincial government in 1930. In the early 1920s, on his urging, the federal government withdrew from sale and development all deposits with less than 75 feet of overburden, unless the firm proved that it had a practical method of separating the bitumen from the sands. Throughout that decade, the government consistently sought his counsel when deciding whether to grant permits in accordance with this rule.

Sidney retired the same year the Abasand project was shut down, in 1945, but he was fortunate to live long enough to see commercial success in the oilsands with the 1967 opening of the Great Canadian Oil Sands plant.

Significantly, much of Sidney's work is still of use to this day. "The government also uses his data," Hunt says, making his work "sort of the bible of the oilsands. His work laid the foundation for government and industry."


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