Arne Nielsen was a young geologist just a few years out of university when he led the team that discovered the Pembina oil field in central Alberta, a huge find that changed the face of the oil business in Canada. He later went on to help discover oil in locations ranging from the prairies of Saskatchewan to the Sable Island field off the coast of Nova Scotia and Hibernia off Newfoundland’s coast, along with the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana.
One of North America’s largest conventional oil fields, Alberta’s Pembina has been producing since 1953. Oil from such fields is much cheaper to produce than from the oil sands of Northern Alberta.
“My idea at the time was to find oil by looking at the pure geology,” Mr. Nielsen wrote in an article in Alberta Oil in April of this year. His method was unconventional and the people running the firm he was working for at first dismissed his ideas, which came from studying electronic and physical evidence from wells drilled in the area.
It was tedious work but it paid off. “Creativity is one of the characteristics that makes the best geologists,” said Mr. Nielsen’s wife, Valerie Nielsen, a geophysicist who shares her husband’s scientific interests. “Arne’s creativity paid off in a big way.”
Mr. Nielsen, who died July 2, a few days before his 88th birthday, went on to become president of Mobil Oil Canada. His work on the geology of the Pembina field made his name at an early age and propelled him into a successful career in the Canadian oil business, leading to directorships at oil and gas firms and large corporations outside the energy field such as Toronto-Dominion Bank and Aetna Insurance.
“For a geologist, one of your big objectives is to make a real oil discovery. What I found at Pembina I felt was an oil discovery that was a billion-barrel type in size,” Mr. Neilsen wrote in Alberta Oil. “For a young geologist not many years out of university, it gave my career a tremendous boost.”
Arne (pronounced Arnie, the Danish way) Nielsen was born July 7, 1925, on a farm in Standard, Alta. His parents, Aksel and Marie Nielsen, were Danish immigrants who first migrated to Iowa but moved to Alberta in 1910, encouraged by a land grant from the Canadian Pacific Railway that allowed Arne’s farm labourer father to buy a farm with a 25-year mortgage. Not only was land $15 an acre cheaper, but the weather was better.
“The winters were not as severe as they were in Iowa,” Arne Nielsen wrote in his memoirs, We Gambled Everything: The Life and Times of an Oilman, published last year. “There were light snowfalls and weeks of warm weather during which the snow disappeared. In winter, regular Chinook winds occurred.”
The CPR built a spur line to Standard, but it was still isolated. An hour’s drive east of Calgary today along the Trans-Canada Highway, in the 1920s and 30s there were no highways or oil royalties to finance them. Alberta was poor. Young Arne travelled to school and that was about it. He was 14 the first time he went to Calgary, when his mother took him to the big city to buy him his first suit for his confirmation in the Lutheran church.
The isolation was a bit of a drawback for Arne’s father, who wasn’t great at fixing things in an era when farmers had to be mechanics and carpenters, able to repair anything that broke. “His father loved studying rocks and he passed that on to Arne, along with his trait of not being able to fix things,” Ms. Nielsen said.
The Danish immigrants valued education and didn’t complain about the school tax of $10 per 100 acres. Their descendants went on to amass an impressive number of university degrees.