Petroleum production in Canada is a major industry which is important to the economy of North America. Canada has the third largest oil reserves in the world and is the world’s fifth largest oil producer and fourth largest oil exporter. In 2015 it produced an average of 621,610 cubic metres per day (3.9 Mbbl/d) of crude oil and equivalent. Of that amount, 61% was upgraded and non-upgraded bitumen from oil sands, and the remainder light crude oil, heavy crude oil and natural-gas condensate. Most of Canadian petroleum production is exported, approximately 482,525 cubic metres per day (3 Mbbl/d) in 2015, with almost all of the exports going to the United States. Canada is by far the largest single source of oil imports to the United States, providing 43% of US crude oil imports in 2015.
The petroleum industry in Canada is also referred to as the Canadian “Oil Patch”; the term refers especially to upstream operations (exploration and production of oil and gas), and to a lesser degree to downstream operations (refining, distribution, and selling of oil and gas products). In 2005, almost 25,000 new oil wells were spudded (drilled) in Canada. Daily, over 100 new wells are spudded in the province of Alberta alone. Although Canada is one of the largest oil producers and exporters in the world, it also imports significant amounts of oil into its eastern provinces since its oil pipelines do not extend all the way across the country and many of its oil refineries cannot handle the types of oil its oil fields produce. In 2014 it imported 86,400 cubic metres per day (0.5 Mbbl/d) into its eastern provinces while simultaneously exporting 453,700 cubic metres per day (2.9 Mbbl/d) from its western provinces and east coast offshore oil fields.
The Canadian petroleum industry developed in parallel with that of the United States. The first oil well in Canada was dug by hand (rather than drilled) in 1858 by James Miller Williams near his asphalt plant at Oil Springs, Ontario. At a depth of 4.26 metres (14.0 ft) he struck oil, one year before “Colonel” Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in the United States. Williams later went on to found “The Canadian Oil Company” which qualified as the world’s first integrated oil company.
Petroleum production in Ontario expanded rapidly, and practically every significant producer became his own refiner. By 1864, 20 refineries were operating in Oil Springs and seven in Petrolia, Ontario. However, Ontario’s status as an important oil producer did not last long. By 1880 Canada was a net importer of oil from the United States.
Canada’s unique geography, geology, resources and patterns of settlement have been key factors in the history of Canada. The development of the petroleum sector helps illustrate how they have helped make the nation quite distinct from the United States. Unlike the United States, which has a number of different major oil producing regions, the vast majority of Canada’s petroleum resources are concentrated in the enormous Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), one of the largest petroleum-containing formations in the world. It underlies 1,400,000 square kilometres (540,000 sq mi) of Western Canada including most or part of four western provinces and one northern territory. Consisting of a massive wedge of sedimentary rock up to 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) thick extending from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Canadian Shield in the east, it is far distant from Canada’s east and west coast ports as well as its historical industrial centres. It is also far from American industrial centres. Because of its geographic isolation, the area was settled relatively late in the history of Canada, and its true resource potential was not discovered until after World War II. As a result, Canada built its major manufacturing centres near its historic hydroelectric power sources in Ontario and Quebec, rather than its petroleum resources in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Not knowing about its own potential, Canada began to import the vast majority of its petroleum from other countries as it developed into a modern industrial economy.