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From our 2012 Archives: Pictures of the evolution of the oil sands

Canada's oil sands development owes much to game-changer Ned Gilbert

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For centuries before Europeans arrived, first nations peoples used bitumen, which naturally seeped into the banks of the Athabasca River, as a sealant for canoes. 1778: Fur trader Peter Pond becomes the first European to see the bitumen deposits, after a sample had been taken to a Hudson Bay trading post in 1717. 1875: The Canadian Geological Survey provides the first formal government look at the oil sands. 1892: The photo shows tar sands along the Athabasca River in Alberta.

D.B. Dowling/Geological Survey of Canada / Library and Archives Canada

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1915: The city of Edmonton begins experimenting with bitumen for paving roads. 1920s: Provincial research scientist Karl Clark, with others, develops a hot water-flotation system to separate bitumen from sand. 1927: The photo shows workers tackling the face of a bitumen sand quarry in Fort McMurray, Alta.

Sidney Clarke Ells/Library and Archives Canada

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1929: After field tests in 1924, scientist Karl Clark and associate Sidney Blair patent their water-flotation system. 1930: Mr. Clark starts producing from a small plant at Bitumount, on the shore of the Athabasca River near Fort McMurray (shown here in 2011), pumping 300 barrels a day with a seven-man crew. The product is used largely for roofing and paving.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

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1938: Abasand Oils Ltd., the first commercial oil project, begins producing diesel from the oil sands. A photo of the Abasand camp at Horse River, Alta., taken in 1936, shows the mess hall and bunk house in the left background and the separation plant at right. It was sold to the government after WWII and not rebuilt after it subsequently burned down.

National Archives of Canada / Canadian Press

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1953: Great Canadian Oil Sands is formed, a company that would build a commercial oil project following regulatory changes in Alberta in 1962. 1963: Sun Oil Company takes ownership of GCOS, with a $250-million investment, at that time the biggest private investment in Canadian history and described as “the biggest gamble in history.” Pre-1965: In this undated photo, Fort McMurray’s first hotel, the Oil Sands Hotel, and other buildings along its dusty main street, Franklin Avenue, give the Northern Alberta community a frontier flavour. 1967: Oil begins flowing from the 45,000 barrel-a-day Sun Oil plant.

The Canadian Press

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1964: The Syncrude consortium is formed. Nine years later, work begins on the first Syncrude mine, which achieved first oil in 1978. 1967: In the photo, steam rises in minus-20C weather along a conveyor leading to the primary extraction unit at the Athabasca tar sands mining site 30 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

The Globe and Mail

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1979: The photo shows the Syncrude plant at Mildred Lake, Alta. Spurred by tight supplies and soaring prices, the Canadian petroleum industry makes significant progress in all key areas in 1979. The $2.2-billion Syncrude oil sands development achieves 100,000 barrels daily production. 1985: Imperial Oil Ltd. begins first “in-situ” (without a mine) production of oil sands. Four years later, it’s pumping 140,000 barrels a day using this technique.

The Canadian Press

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1992: Suncor, formed through the amalgamation of Sun Oil and GCOS, begins switching from giant bucketwheels to scrape up oil sands to the massive trucks and shovels still used today. 1997: Suncor, for the first time, pumps more than 100,000 barrels in one day from the oil sands. 1998: Syncrude pumps its billionth barrel. The photo shows Syncrude’s Mildred Lake operations.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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2001: Marks the first commercial use of SAGD, the technology that produces oil sands using high-pressure underground injections of steam, which melt the bitumen so it can be carried to the surface in wells. 2004: Total oil sands output exceeds a million barrels a day. 2012: In the photo, Ned Gilbert stands before artwork at the Calgary Petroleum club. Mr. Gilbert, 91, an oil sands pioneer, is one of the original members of the club.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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