Too young to join the army at the start of the Second World War, Mr. Nielsen enlisted in late 1944. He was being trained in the tank corps at Camp Borden in Ontario when the war ended before he could go overseas. Still listed as a veteran, he qualified for government-financed education and went to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he earned a master’s degree in geology by 1950. Five of his nine children earned a total of nine degrees from the University of Alberta, with others graduating from the University of Calgary and Harvard.
Mr. Nielsen’s first summer job off the farm was with the Geological Survey of Canada in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, north of the Athabasca River. In 1949, he joined Imperial Oil working on the Leduc property. Discovered just two years earlier, the Leduc No. 1 well started the oil boom that changed the way of life in Alberta, turning it from a struggling, agriculturally dependent province to an oil-rich one.
From the start, Mr. Nielsen loved working in the field. And he loved the oil business. “It was more than a job … it was a way of life,” he told the author Peter Newman.
After graduating, Mr. Neilsen started working with Socony-Vacuum Exploration, then a small player in the Alberta oil exploration boom. It would later be renamed Mobil Oil. Mr. Nielsen led the team that moved into Drayton Valley, Alta., where they discovered the Pembina oil field.
“Like many other great western Canada oil and gas discoveries, Pembina No. 1 defied conventional geological wisdom,” Mr. Nielsen wrote in his book, which made the bestseller list in Calgary this year.
“In 1952, the conventional wisdom was that Alberta’s best oil prospects were in the Devonian-era limestone reefs – ancient coral reefs of shallow seas now locked up in the province’s geologic deposits. The Pembina discovery was made by going off in a completely different direction.”
After sitting alone for hundreds of hours going over logs from exploratory drills, Mr. Nielsen had to persuade his superiors that it was worth continuing to drill. They were convinced oil could only be found in old coral reefs like those at Leduc. But Mr. Nielsen thought there could be oil in a different layer, the Cardium sandstone. The thinking was that oil would seep through the sandstone, but Mr. Nielsen said it would pool against the non-porous shale in the next layer.
After discovering some “little puddles” of oil, one of his colleagues suggested fracking, or pushing fluid at high pressure into the well, the technique that has produced the shale oil boom in Canada and the United States. Back then it was a first in Canada.
On June 17, 1953, the first of many producing wells came in. The Pembina oil field was born and is still producing today, with modern fracking techniques extending its life.
“Pembina No. 1 was a great moment for my associates and me. It was particularly a triumph for me,” Mr. Nielsen said of the discovery. “I had achieved the dream of every geologist; discovering a large oil field through exploration based on sound geological principles.” He was 27 years old.
Mr. Nielsen went on to become the chief geologist of Socony-Vacuum, then was posted to New York, Denver and Houston. He came back to Calgary in 1966 as vice-president of exploration and became the first Canadian president of Mobil Oil Canada a year later.
In 1973, he was part of Canada’s first energy trade delegation to China, a year after Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing. China was still fairly closed to the rest of the world and this was one of the first Western business delegations, led by Canada’s minister of energy at the time, Donald Macdonald.