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Well of the Week – Is the past the key to the energy future?

In addition to highlighting cool geology, the Petro NinjaEnlighten Geoscience Well of the Week also likes to discuss important contributions of the Canadian oil and gas industry to our nation and the world. In this case, by asking the question: Can Pre-Confederation innovations be instructive in our quest for an efficient energy transition?

Investigating this premise leads to the subject of this week’s WotW. The first oil well in western Canada wasn’t the first in Canada. And with all due respect to our colleagues to the south, the Drake well was not the first well in North America. The first commercial oil well in North America, Williams No. 1, was dug (yes, dug) by James Miller Williams in Lambton County, Ontario in 1858. Additionally, the World’s first integrated oil company was incorporated in Petrolia, Ontario.

James Miller Williams in 1873 (Library and Archives Canada)

Site of Williams No. 1 (

The development of Oil Springs followed hard on the heels on the work of Abraham Gesner who discovered how to refine kerosene from coal and founded the World’s first refinery. (Sources for these Canadian firsts are listed in the References).

Abraham Gesner (Petroleum History Society)

Claiming these honours for the Canadian industry is more than a display of patriotism. It is also a reminder of how the oil and gas industry can lead to environmental progress in, perhaps, surprising and tangential ways. While all of this innovation was taking place in Canada, the whaling industry was the primary source of oil for lamps around the World. To quote from an essay on the subject:

In 1849, Gesner devised a method to distill kerosene from petroleum. In 1846 there were 735 ships in the whaling fleet. Thirty years later, in 1876, the fleet was down to 39 ships. Kerosene had taken over the whale oil market.

The price of sperm oil reached its high of $1.77 (USD) per gallon in 1856; by 1896 it sold for 40 cents. Yet it could not keep pace with the price of refined petroleum, which dropped from 59 cents per gallon in 1865 to a fraction over seven cents in 1895.

Robbins, J. (1988)

While there is still a long way to go for the southern right whale population to recover, it is quite likely that the synthesis of kerosene came along in the nick of time to stop the extinction of this and every other species of whale.

Historical reconstruction of the population dynamics of southern right whales in the southwestern Atlantic Ocean. (Romero et al., 2022)

The time of kerosene as the primary source of light was short as other inventors including Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse were working on practical applications of electricity for home use. Although kerosene is a miniscule component of the energy mix in the 21st Century, it served as an indispensable contributor to the transition away from the environmental devastations of the whaling industry.

I often hear people decry the use of natural gas as a lower carbon alternative and insist on a total and immediate switch to non-carbon energy sources. This lesson from a century and a half ago always comes to my mind when the subject of our current energy transition is discussed.


Robbins, J. S., 1988. How Capitalism Saved the Whales. The Freeman., accessed 11/14/2022.

Romero, M.A., Coscarella, M.A., Adams, G.D. et al. Historical reconstruction of the population dynamics of southern right whales in the southwestern Atlantic Ocean. Sci Rep 12, 3324 (2022). [], accessed 11/14/2022.], accessed 11/14/2022.


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