The Canadian oil executives travelled 3,000 kilometres through the country, most of it by rail. They visited an oil-producing area in northeast China near the border with the Soviet Union. The Chinese in the era of Mao Zedong were secretive, Mr. Nielsen wrote, but they were excellent hosts and anxious to learn from the Canadian oilmen, although they shunned any foreign investment. “There is a straight line of sight between the China we encountered in 1973 … and China’s presence (today) in world oil and gas – including the Canadian oil sands 35 years later.”
As a homegrown oil executive, Mr. Nielsen was courted to run Petro-Canada, then a Crown corporation. He recounted that he wasn’t keen on the position, and “… influential people in Ottawa decided that I wasn’t political enough. I think that verdict was a compliment.”
One non-paid government post he accepted was as Honorary Consul of Denmark for Alberta.
In 1976, Mr. Nielsen left Mobil Oil Canada and became president and CEO of Canadian Superior Oil, another subsidiary of an American oil giant. When he left his office at Mobil he had his secretary make a careful list of every item he took with him to avoid any conflicts. It was a prescient move.
About six months after he started at Canadian Superior, Mobil launched a lawsuit against Mr. Nielsen saying he and others had taken company secrets with them. “The basic charge was that I could not work for my new company in the exact same job that I had with Mobil without utilizing confidential Mobil information,” Mr. Nielsen wrote. That he was a star geologist as well as an oil executive seemed to worry the American parent of Mobil Oil Canada.
In the end, a judge dismissed Mobil’s lawsuit. Mr. Nielsen was on a business trip to Chile when he heard the news.
It appears there were no hard feelings. When Mobil acquired Superior, it also took over the subsidiary Canadian Superior Oil and Mr. Nielsen was appointed chairman and chief executive officer of the merged company in Canada.
Mr. Nielsen was a point man in the oil industry’s battle against the National Energy Program, brought in by the Trudeau government in 1980. The NEP was in many ways a reaction to consumer and voter dissatisfaction with rising oil prices.
Mr. Nielsen blamed the indifference of Pierre Trudeau to Alberta for the policy. “He was perceived as a man whose only contact with Alberta was to cross its airspace while flying somewhere else.”
He remembered watching as then-energy minister Marc Lalonde put forward his policy on Oct. 28, 1980. “We sat in front of television sets in our offices, mouths agape. Prior to that afternoon, we couldn’t have imagined anything the federal government could have done to us would have been worse than what they’d already done. We were naive.”
Mr. Nielsen and others set up what they called the Alternative Energy Program. When the Mulroney government, elected in 1984, introduced a new energy program called the Western Accord, Mr. Nielsen signed the document as the representative of the Canadian Petroleum Association. Many of the ideas came from the Alternative Energy Program.
Mr. Nielsen retired as CEO of Mobil Oil Canada in 1989. After retirement, he served on the boards of a number of companies both in and out of the oil business.
He and his first wife, Evelyn, had seven children. She died in 1975 at the age of 43 after suffering a heart attack in a Calgary restaurant. Several years later he married Valerie Thomas and they had two children. He was predeceased by a son.
Mr. Nielsen’s main hobby was reading, especially military and natural history. He wrote one technical book, Cardium Stratigraphy of the Pembina Field, as well as his autobiography. In 2007, the house in Standard, Alta., where Mr. Nielsen’s immigrant family got their start in Canada – “28 feet by 32 feet with four rooms” – was moved to the Danish Canadian National Museum and Gardens in Dickson, Alta.
As Mr. Nielsen wrote at the close of his memoir, “It’s quite a privilege to be part of history while still alive.”