From Palaeo to Petroleum

By Jess Sinclair

Grande Prairie’s Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum is a jewel in Northern Alberta’s crown. The world-class facility boasts an impressive array of displays and leading-edge public programming that celebrates the province’s rich palaeontological heritage. Many Albertans are unaware of the fact that, from Turner Valley to the Pipestone Creek area, the province plays host to some of the world’s most important natural history sites. Alberta is home to a bourgeoning “prehistoric safari” industry that draws fossil enthusiasts from all over the world in the same way that the Philip J. Currie facility does.

It’s no surprise that the same geological forces that make Alberta such a bountiful source of palaeontological material have bestowed other riches on the province in the form of oil and gas deposits. Canada has the third largest proven oil reserves in the world, most of which are in Alberta, and the province is also home to the Duvernay shale gas formation and portions of the Montney shale gas formation— both of which are currently considered major North American plays.

The Hitch team was lucky enough to sit down with Philip J. Currie’s Education Coordinator, Jewels Goff, to get her take on the synchronicity between Alberta’s extensive palaeontological history and the province’s oil and gas resources.

Goff notes that the name of one of the museum’s capstone exhibits, “From Palaeo to Petroleum,” came naturally to the facility’s curators. “Given our location in Northern Alberta and the rich fossil resources that inseparably link palaeontology with the petroleum industry, the theme was a very natural fit,” she says. “The same rock layers in which we find in our Devonian and Triasstic fossils are ones in which oil and gas deposits can be found. Cretaceous aged rock layers are drilled or trenched through in order to get to the earlier fossil fuel producing layers.“

The common misconception that oil and gas products originate from the remains of fossilized dinosaurs is one that Philip J. Currie’s guides are happy to correct. But that doesn’t mean that geological excavations don’t serve a dual purpose in Alberta. “While oil and gas does not come from compressed dinosaurs (it comes from earlier plant and plankton material), the petroleum industry often comes across palaeontological finds during their work, “Goff says. “Both our museum and the Royal Tyrrell exhibit fossils found during oil and gas activity.”

And the connection doesn’t end there. As with so many other communities, the Grande Prairie area benefits from being a hub for various resource industries and the people employed by them.  Goff says, “as a regional museum, we strive to acknowledge the local industries that help make our community great. We recognize the oil and gas industry through our Alberta Today gallery, and the forestry industry through the use of our award-winning timber beam roof ceiling.”

To that end, the museum has a long-standing partnership with Seven Generations Energy, a company that is very active in supporting various cultural and community institutions in the Grande Prairie area. The company has even provided core samples from its geological exploration programs for one of the museum’s founding exhibits in 2015. At the time, Steve J. Haysom, then VP at Seven Generations, said “The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum is a testament not only to this discovery [referring to the Pipestone Creek dinosaur bonebed], but to Alberta’s rich geological history when dinosaurs roamed the planet.”

The importance of the Wapiti formation in understanding Alberta’s geological history cannot be understated.  “In order to fully appreciate the dinosaurs on display, understanding of the origins and evolution of the Wapiti Formation’s geology helps to paint the whole picture,” says Goff. “Trying to figure out what happened in geologic past is kind of like putting together a puzzle without knowing the picture. With just a few dinosaur fossils, but no other pieces of the puzzle, putting together what happened would be significantly more difficult.”

This is where a fuller understanding of the area’s geology (sometimes supplied by experts from the oil and gas community) is tremendously helpful for palaeontologists and palaeobotonists—those who study ancient plant life. Most members of the scientific and dinosaur-loving community are open to this connection. Jewels Goff acknowledged that fossil fuels have become something of a controversial topic in certain circles. “However,” she says, “we feel that education about the connection between palaeontology and fossil fuels, as well as the ethical management of the resources in our province are important and deserve a place in our museum.”