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John Lichtenbelt: The parrot lover who defined the oilsands
24 May 2011 | Mike Byfield

John Lichtenbelt produced the first geological survey that reliably defined the truly massive volume of bitumen in the Athabasca oilsands. A constant innovator, the Dutch-born Calgarian also came up with the concept of time sequenced stratigraphy using well log analysis. More controversially, he helped prepare a proposal to recover bitumen through nuclear detonations. And no downtown receptionist ever forgot the consulting geologist who walked into her office with a large parrot perched on his shoulder.

Lichtenbelt died in 2009 at age 92. His life-long affection for cockatoos, a crested bird from the parrot family, stemmed from his early childhood in the tropics. His father was a second-generation colonist in Indonesia, employed as doctor and dentist for a big sugar refinery. The Dutch expatriate community did not breed many sissies. For example, a tooth extraction cost 50% less if the patient could not afford anesthetic.

In an unpublished memoir, Lichtenbelt recalls commanding an anti-aircraft battery at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport during the early days of World War Two. With the water table two feet below surface, concrete fortification was impossible. On his own initiative, the green lieutenant concocted a cheap, effective substitute with earth and straw bales. Hours after the Germans took the airport, Lichtenbelt writes, Luftwaffe officers sketched his innovative machine gun pits and ammunition hut: “What took a Dutch army six months to consider only took the German officers one half-day to adopt. To my chagrin, I saw my invention spread all over the Western Front.”

John Lichtenbelt with friend

John Lichtenbelt with friend

His mother, sister and he sheltered Dutch Jews during the war, hiding three families on a rotating basis in cooperation with others. “They often went hungry sharing the meager food rations for three people among six or seven. John also used to dress in a German uniform and enter enemy headquarters to gather intelligence,” says Don Hryhor, who worked as Lichtenbelt’s consulting associate for 30 years in Calgary. While studying geology, the Dutch resistance fighter simultaneously specialized in weapons repair and instruction. Lichtenbelt writes:

“In the fall of 1944, I was going home after giving a bazooka training lesson. I had one of my men with me. The bazooka and two rockets were in a gunnysack on my left arm. I had my pistol, fully loaded and the safety off, in my right hand in my pocket. Coming to the corner of the Market and the Vysel Straat, I planned to make a left turn but upon reaching the corner, I saw two German soldiers. They just finished checking papers and frisking somebody for weapons. They saw me and my path, turned towards us and started to cross the road.

“I had to make a split-second decision. I could make my left turn as planned and walk away but this would be a signal that I wanted to avoid them. The only thing I could do was to out-fluff them. If they were to stop us for inspection, I would have to shoot them. The consequences of that would be retaliation by the Germans: all the houses around the shooting area would be blown up and 100 Dutch civilians would be shot. When I saw the German soldiers start to cross, I pushed my man, who walked on my right side and we walked straight at the German patrol. When we were only a few yards apart in the middle of the Vysel Straat, one German said something to the other and they turned back to the sidewalk they came from. A very deadly situation melted away to nothing!”

After the war, Lichtenbelt wrote his master’s thesis on the Alpes-Maritimes, a complex thrust belt in southeastern France. Royal Dutch/Shell then assigned him to Indonesia, supervising a surface geology and shallow well stratigraphic drilling program using primitive hand-portable drilling rigs. Shell carried thriftiness to extremes at that time. For instance, when Lichtenbelt’s supply order included a request for two erasers rather than the usual one, the next shipment included a single eraser cut in half.

Jungle conditions in Sumatra were adventurous. “A Sumatra bear wandered into camp,” Lichtenbelt writes. “Everybody was hiding because these bears are known to be very ornery. While a hundred laborers were hiding, I walked up to the bear. When I was a couple of yards away, he turned and sauntered to a creek. He crossed the creek over a fallen tree and I followed him. I was not aware of the large audience but later I learned that this episode with the bear proved that my personal powers were greater than those of the bear.”

The geologist campaigned to adopt more efficient mechanical rigs which subsequently recovered their cost in seven weeks. He also came up with a solution for a well logging problem that had plagued Shell for half a century. “The SP-log measures the potential between ion-less mud fluid and ion-full formation water. In middle Sumatra, the formation water does not have ions and therefore, no Self-Potential curve is generated,” Lichtenbelt writes. To resolve that issue, he laced the drilling mud with ions by adding baking soda, which produced perfectly reversed SP-logs.

Eventually fate did deal a harsh physical blow to this self-described “lucky” man. “I had just repaired a mud pump engine and was testing it. I ran up the speed to maximum when a drive belt broke. The belt hit me square in the left eye. The eye started to swell right away and I was blinded. I had to get out of the jungle and to the road but my balance was poor and the shock of walking would probably damage the eye further. I was carried out.

“A rattan chair was fitted with two long bamboo poles. Four men carried me slowly over the slippery footbridges. Four men followed in reserve. I first flew from Djambi to Palembang and then on the advice of the Shell doctors, to an eye specialist in Djacarta. The doctor told me that I was very lucky that my eye did not burst. I was informed that the retina was irreversibly damaged. I have learned to live with this handicap.”

In 1956, the partially-blinded geologist emigrated to Canada. Oil was US$3.75 a barrel, natural gas 13 cents per mcf, and no major pipeline had yet tied Alberta to eastern markets. Richfield Oil Corp. soon hired Lichtenbelt at $610 per month. That summer, the Dutch geologist crisscrossed the Athabasca region via helicopter, mapping and sampling all exposed oilsand outcrops. Between 1944 and 1954, the federal government had done some oilsands core sampling. “The typical estimate for the resource in place at that time was about 300-350 billion barrels,” Hryhor says. “Starting out, John expected that his work would prove the resource is much smaller.”

The federal government had cored the Athabasca deposit using diamond core bits. “This is patently wrong!” Lichtenbelt writes with frank disgust at incompetence. “Diamonds need a hard rock to cut through, and only the diamond does the rock penetration; the soft metal holding the diamond in the bit never touches the rock. The tar sands, however, are soft but very abrasive. The soft metal of the drill bit would wear away, causing the diamonds to fall out and which would result in the bit becoming very dull.”

During the winter of 1956-57, Lichtenbelt supervised a 40-well oilsands coring program with rigs used to drill water wells. “During a camp move, we drove to McMurray and went to the only place open to the public: the hotel-beer parlor,” the geologist writes. “We sat around the bare table: three Canadians and me. I was rather puzzled when one of the drillers put up three fingers when he got the attention of the waiter. I wondered if I was excluded for some reason. The solution came quickly. The waiter put three glasses of beer in front of each of us! If you get to the watering hole, you don’t waste time getting drunk.”

With supplementary information from a second drilling program in 1957-58, Lichtenbelt estimated Athabasca bitumen in place with less than 100 feet of overburden, at nearly one trillion barrels (a figure endorsed again as recently as 2009 by the Energy Resources Conservation Board). For the first time, Canadians grasped the gargantuan scale of the hydrocarbons deposited at the southern end of the Mackenzie watershed.

The Dutch immigrant, who preferred field work over office duties, once headed happily into the Rockies west of Nordegg with a 36-horse pack train. Everyone rode. “None of us had ever been on a horse, so the first week was very painful,” the geologist writes with feeling. On another occasion, he and his companions were forced to drive two rental cars along a beach on Graham Island in the Queen Charlottes. Both vehicles were lost in quicksand, their shorted-out horns bleating like dying whales as the tide rolled in.

Richfield worked with American and Russian scientists to apply atomic power to the oilsands. The resulting proposal harnessed the fact that oil is a poor conductor while silica sand is an excellent conductor at very high temperatures. Suppose a well was drilled into an oilsands formation, the team theorized. Further suppose that a small nuclear warhead (equivalent to 9,000 tons of TNT) was then detonated downhole. If all went well, the radiation would be permanently and safely sequestered under a glass-like ceiling of melted silica while the bitumen would be liquefied in the cavity left by the explosion. Federal officials quashed the proposal.

When Richfield pulled out of Canada in 1966, Lichtenbelt found himself too old at 48 to land a regular staff job. (Pension plans at the time virtually ruled out a private sector employer hiring anyone even remotely close to retirement age.) Ever innovative, the geologist successfully reinvented himself as a consultant. “I did a study of the geology of the southern Northwest Territories between Great Slave Lake and the Alberta border, using the time stratigraphic correlation method. I then became interested in northeastern British Columbia, where the first gas field was discovered at Clarke Lake in 1951, and in the following years, this became my main hunting ground,” he writes.

Time stratigraphic correlation was his own invention. At that time, geologists mapped underground formations using lithology - that is, by matching rock cuttings from different wells. But lithostratigraphy has its flaws. “Lithology is a function of environment. You may find rock of the same type at comparable depths yet those rocks may not belong to the same formation. Seas advance and retreat, valleys form and erode, sedimentary infilling occurs,” explains Hryhor, a specialist in interpreting seismic data.

“John identified very faint signals in the well logs, whispers from the rock that he believed could be due to widespread variations in atmospheric radioactivity caused by sunspots, cosmic rays, volcanism and similar phenomena that are not confined to a specific region,” Hryhor says. “He used those distinctive characters and sequences of characters to construct a time-based stratigraphy.”

Tragically, Lichtenbelt’s wife Agnes succumbed at a relatively early age to Pick’s disease, a rare and lethal form of dementia. In the course of time, his son and daughter left home. Besides his human friends, a menagerie of cockatoos kept the geologist company. These curve-beaked parrots - long-lived, noisy, often cantankerous and expensive to feed properly - are sometimes abandoned by their owners. “John looked after as many as 24 birds at a time,” Hryhor says. “He became a widely-recognized authority on breeding and caring for cockatoos.”

Greg Cave, formerly the chief geologist for Husky Oil and Samson Canada, says time sequence stratigraphy has significantly advanced due to improvements in seismic interpretation techniques, along with more sophisticated geologic descriptive terminology. “John was arguably ahead of his time and the tools available but he had exceptional intuition. Sequence stratigraphy has become mainstream,” he comments. Hryhor agrees, adding that developing suitable processing techniques for well log analysis may yet yield more useful correlative data than earth scientists have anticipated until now.”

More pictures of John Lichtenbelt with his parrots can be found at