Into Big Valley

Two flavours of Alberta, Canada oil

Two flavours of oil in Alberta, Canada: Canola and Devonian

A few days ago, I lamented that the lovely town of Big Valley is blessed with a Creation Science Museum. The museum is a single-room curio shop with a fossilized Teddy Bear and not much more. It’s a disappointing destination for anyone seeking answers from either Genesis or science. And it’s a sad addition to Big Valley’s community.

big valley - rr1

“Archeological” ruins in Big Valley, Alberta: Train repair shop from 1920.

Aerial of abandoned roundhouse

Aerial of abandoned roundhouse

I don’t want to paint the town with the same brush I used on my Creation Science essay. Rural Alberta is more than funky anti-science museums. For example, long before there was the museum, there was the train. The town of Big Valley is a terminal for a steam engine and its passenger cars. They will take you across prairie hills and vales and return you a few hours later. I didn’t ride the train, but instead I hobbled around an archeological ruins of sorts. Big Valley once housed a large commercial train hub with roundhouse and repair shops for grain, coal, and passenger trains. The remains – acres of concrete slabs and the walls of warehouses – are a delight to see. My sons and I spent more time among the roundhouse ruins that inside the Creation Science Museum, and we’re not even rail buffs.

Big Valley Roundhouse

Big Valley Roundhouse

There’s a boardwalk along Big Valley’s main drag. It’s got gift shops which we didn’t try out and a fine ice creamery, which we did sample from. Most people likely miss the fact that the Jimmie Jock Boardwalk was built in memory of the owner of the town’s Chinese restaurant. Like many (if not most) small towns on Canada’s western prairies, Big Valley was home to a Chinese family that ran the town’s main diner for a few generations. These places – and their Asian restaurateur – have mostly disappeared now, but I remember enjoying Chinese food and hospitality during the 1970s and 1980s when I was young and Canada’s small towns were new to me.

Jimmy JockThe other major cultural site in Big Valley, Alberta, is the blue church on the hill. The Anglican church was built in 1916 with a gift of $500 from Caroline Leffler who raised the funds by making selling children’s clothing. Ms Leffler probably never saw the church. She lived in England but sent her gift to Calgary, which was then on the Empire’s frontier. She suggested that the local diocese select any needy town to build a church. Big Valley wasn’t especially needy – it had prosperous ranches and a huge coal and rail business, but it was booming, lacked an Anglican church, and was perhaps more seedy than needy.

blue churchBig Valley was cattle, then farming, then coal, then oil and gas. Coal fueled the rails and energized Canada’s west. By the time the easy coal had been dug and depleted, oil was discovered. In 1949, seismic records suggested a nice anomaly 6 kilometres south of Big Valley. In September 1950,  Big Valley No. 7 discovery well was completed. It produced 350,000 barrels of oil and led to a field that produced 321 million more – plus 85 billion cubic feet of gas. Now, 65 years later, the oil is waning and most of the pump jacks are idle. The area has returned to its agrarian roots.

However, oil is having an unexpected renaissance in the Big Valley area. An oilseed plant called canola (bred from rapus, or rapeseed) covers the region like a yellow carpet. Canola grows on 20 million acres of western Canadian cropland and yields three barrels of oil from each acre. That’s 60 million barrels of farmed oil each year. Meanwhile, conventional oil production in western Canada has fallen to around 250 million barrels. Most canola is used for cooking, but it’s also an ingredient in biofuel production.  In the future, the volume of oil grown on farms will exceed the oil lifted by nodding donkey heads from under the farms around Big Valley.

Oh, I almost forgot. Those rocks that made all the oil in the last century? They are buried 1660 metres (about one mile) inside the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin. The shale that generated the hydrocarbons was deposited over several million years in a warm tropical sea when plate tectonics positioned Big Valley close to the equator. Later, with millions more years of heat and pressure, the oils migrated into reservoir rocks – porous limestone created during millions of years of reef growth in equatorial sea water. All of this happened during the late Devonian, about 400 million years ago. But for a simpler explanation, drop by the Creation Science Museum for their take on the formation of oil deposits.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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3 Responses to Into Big Valley

  1. In the US and Canada, canola oil is marketed under that name, and, quite correctly, regarded as a healthy oil to use especially in cooking. In the UK, for reasons that I do not understand, it is sold as the cheapest “vegetable oil”, the term “canola” is not used, and “rapeseed oil” is listed in tiny print as the ingredient.


    • Ron Miksha says:

      I had a friend visiting from Israel who wondered why I call the stuff canola – it’s only known as rapeseed there, too. I’m not sure what varieties are grown in Europe and Israel, but in Canada, aggressive breeding (sliced endosperms, for example) created an oilseed with less of the harmful eruric acid found in rapeseed, resulting in healthier canola. If you are interested, I have a short piece on another blog that explains this and also the other big reason we don’t call the stuff rape any more.


      • I trust that the rapeseed oil I buy in my supermarket comes from a strain that has been bred to have negligible erucic acid. I think there is a gap in the UK market for someone with the wit to take this stuff, triple the price, and label it canola, or even better completely new name, recommended by doctors and specially bred for maximum health.

        Liked by 1 person

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