November 2017, Vol. 244, No. 11


75 Years for Growth, Innovation

Seventy-five years ago, Union Gas pioneered the use of underground storage for natural gas in Ontario – a critical, but largely unheralded innovation that to this day, ensures that Ontarians have a reliable source of affordable energy to get through their traditionally cold winters.

Before storage was developed, the province’s natural gas industry was operating on borrowed time. It had to rely wholly on declining domestic supply, but as an affordable energy source, it was in high demand. Eventually demand quickly began to outpace supply. Shortages were first felt during the cold winter of 1918, prompting the provincial government to restrict the use of natural gas for industries in favor of residential consumers.

Despite this, shortages continued into the 1920s and on severely cold winter days, residents of cities such as Sarnia, Windsor and Chatham were forced to go without natural gas to heat their homes.

It was clear that new sources of supply were needed, but the high cost of exploration and development helped to convince many energy companies to stop drilling and instead focus on energy conservation. Union Gas, however, was determined to find a way to ensure that Ontario would get the energy it needed, and by the mid-1920s, the company had increased its exploration and discovery efforts.

That work paid off in 1931 with the discovery of two large natural gas wells in Dawn Township, near Sarnia, sparking a period of growth for the province, the natural gas industry and Union Gas. Over the next decade, more and more Ontarians began to use natural gas as service extended into new communities.

At the same time, the growing popularity of natural gas as an affordable choice for home heating and more efficient automatic natural gas hot-water heaters and individual room heaters drove increased consumption. Concerns remained, however, because while supply had continued to increase, growth had come through existing, rather than new, natural gas fields. It was becoming increasingly clear that new solutions were needed.

In 1937, Union Gas hired Dr. Charles S. Evans to become the company’s first full-time geologist. Evans, who would become one of Eastern Canada’s leading geologists during his 25 years at Union Gas, directed the company’s exploration and discovery program. He would also play a pivotal role in the development of a game-changing innovation for Ontario’s natural gas industry – underground storage.

The next year, Evans proposed using depleted natural gas reservoirs in the company’s Dawn gas field for underground storage. This was not a new concept. Originally tested in 1915, the first operational underground storage site had opened in New York in 1916.

In fact, at the time Evans was writing his proposal, the United States had more than 50 storage pools in 10 different states. Evans knew this. He also knew the geology of Lambton County, and was adamant that the pinnacle reef formations near Dawn Township – domes of porous limestone covered with impervious rock – would be ideal for natural gas storage.

Ontario’s natural gas industry was in full-blown crisis by 1940. Consumer demand for natural gas reached an all-time high while production had dropped to new lows. It was clear the province needed to find new sources of supply. Early in 1941, Union Gas President Sydney Morse contracted with two  engineering firms to test Evans’ underground storage proposal. The firms agreed it would be feasible to inject natural gas into Dawn’s depleted reservoirs and – most importantly – ensure that no gas would be lost during withdrawal.

On Oct. 28, 1942, natural gas was injected into a depleted reservoir at Dawn, marking the birth of Canada’s first commercially successful underground storage. Union Gas could now store natural gas during the summer for use during months when demand was at its highest, alleviating fears over winter shortfalls and restoring consumer faith in natural gas to heat their homes.

The growth of new underground storage in Ontario continued in June 1964 as Tecumseh Gas Storage, now wholly owned by Enbridge Gas Distribution, was developed in Moore, Ontario.

The development of underground storage at Dawn 75 years ago also opened the door to natural gas imports from the United States and Western Canada, ensuring the security of cost-effective supply for Ontarians well into the 21st century and helping to create the reliable system counted on today.

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