Remembering When Ontario Was an Oil Power

oil-pump-jack-sunset-clouds-silhouette-162568.jpgHere's a column from a couple of weeks ago that I wrote for the Kitchener Post. Did you know that we're coming up on the 160th anniversary of the discovery of oil in Oil Springs, Ontario?

Forgetting our fossil fuel past

Did you know that next year is the 160th anniversary of the day Ontario became an oil power?

In August 1858, an asphalt producer named James Miller Williams tried to dig a water well in a southwestern Ontario community called Black Creek.

Instead, what he got was crude oil.

His discovery launched North America's first ever oil rush. The community of Black Creek soon renamed itself Oil Springs.

You can learn about this and more at the Oil Museum of Canada, currently located in Oil Springs, within Lambton County.

Ontario tends to forget its history in oil and natural gas. Our diverse economy softened the boom and bust cycle of fossil fuels as our commodities were taken out of the ground and oil wells ran dry over the next century.

Soon, we were eclipsed by Texas and Alberta.

When I researched Ontario's oil industry's 150th anniversary 10 years ago, I was struck by several things. I was surprised to learn that Ontario was still producing over a thousand barrels of oil a day. True, that was dwarfed by the millions Alberta was producing at the same time, but it was still not a small number.

And, at the time, as oil prices were shooting through the roof, energy companies were still exploring in Ontario. Most of our oil wells might be dry, but there were still untapped gas reserves in Lake Erie.

Despite all this, I was struck by how the anniversary had passed almost unheralded. We make such of a kerfuffle over a sesquicentennial and yet, I saw no advertisements promoting the anniversary or the Oil Museum of Canada. My profile of Ontario's industry was one of the few things written on the matter.

Today, now that fossil fuel prices have tumbled and are only slowly recovering, I wonder at the state of oil and gas exploration here in Ontario.

People couldn't make the connection between Ontario and oil 10 years ago when oil prices were high. Today, many could be forgiven for thinking that the province has moved on from the industry.

Recent advances in solar power have made this energy source as inexpensive as fossil fuels. More and more houses, mine included, now have solar panels on their roofs. While it is true that solar power provides just two per cent of our energy production, solar power capacity has been doubling every two years since the beginning of this decade.

Electric cars were unfeasible, or playthings for the rich. Now, they can handle the drive between Kitchener and Toronto, and their price and quality is comparable to good conventional cars. Charging stations in Ontario are becoming easier to find.

Earlier this week, 25 years after the Toronto Transit Commission abandoned its electric trolley buses, the TTC announced plans to purchase 30 battery-electric buses which could be plying the streets by 2020. These buses are not much more expensive than their diesel counterparts. The commission plans to go emission free by 2040.

It's hard to imagine the world of the future when you are living in the present. However, it's worth remembering that, for a long time, Ontario was the centre of Canada's oil industry.

Thanks to a diversified economy, new technologies, and the limited nature of non-renewable resources, we now live in a time where our oil heritage has been largely forgotten.

So, while it may be hard to imagine a solar-powered, electric vehicle future, a time will come very soon where we can hardly imagine a fossil fueled past.


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