Folio News Story
June 13, 2003

Meet Charles Stelck - father of Alberta's oil industry

Geology pioneer receives honorary degree

by Stephen Osadetz
Dr. Charles Stelck
Dr. Charles Stelck

If the oil industry in Alberta were attributable to a single person, that person might be Charles Stelck, a former University of Alberta professor of geology who was recently awarded an honorary doctorate of science.

"It was a surprise to me because I'm 86," he said. "I usually figure I'm packed on the back shelf already."

Far from it. Though older than your average university researcher, Stelck isn't the type to let the dust gather on his shoulders. Not only is he still writing published papers, he even manages to sit on PhD committees. "Once you're in a language as I am in geology, you're locked in it," he said. "If you ever go outside that realm, you feel unsatisfied."

Stelck, who gave the convocation address to this year's graduates, pioneered the fossil research in Western Canada that eventually led to his students' discovery of Alberta's massive oil reserves.

Doug Layer, for instance, a former student of Stelck's, was instrumental in the discovery of oil in Devon (Leduc No. 1) a half-century ago, sparking Alberta's oil rush. Later, Stelck's former students, Arnie Nielsen and Tony Mason, discovered the Pembina oil field - the largest pool of oil in Canada. Nielsen later went on to become president of Mobil Oil.

Before his massive success and those of his students, though, Stelck's geological research had the romantic character of hardened adventuring in Canada's most forbidding climates. During the early 1940s, Stelck came to believe that coral reefs had once occurred in what is now the Arctic, which would mean that there might also be oil there. "My first job was to find out if there was reef material at Norman Wells. I took a dog team out in the mountains there, and found that there had been a reef there. In those days, we didn't know of continental drift, so it was quite a shock for everybody to realize that a reef had existed there," he said.

With the knowledge that a reef could exist in what was now the Northwest Territories, Stelck and his students set out to apply the same theory to Alberta. "Shell Oil was busy pulling out of the province, because they thought there was no oil here," Stelck said. "Everybody else was drilling blind, but we were actually looking for the reefs. That was how we found the Leduc deposits."

Among his numerous awards is his election to the Royal Society of Canada (1960), the Logan Medal of the Geological Association of Canada (1972), and an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1997.

But his personal success is not what Stelck values most.

"No," he said. "For me, the most important thing is the graduates you turn out."