Torbanite Products Limited

Nova Scotia had several entrepreneurs who mined coal with high oil content in the hope that the oil could be extracted from the coal.

Attempts were made in the mid 1800s to build businesses on oil-rich coal (aka oil shale) in the Stellarton area, but they failed because the Pennsylvania oil fields were discovered in 1859 and became the site of the United States’ first commercial oil well. The Nova Scotian companies could not compete with Pennsylvania’s oil, which was both less expensive and closer to the American market.

Another attempt occurred in 1929 when Torbanite Products Limited built a small refining factory in New Glasgow. (Torbanite is a type of oil shale.)

Things started well. According to the August 8, 1930, edition of the Herald in Alice Arm, British Columbia, “A million dollar contract has been offered the Torbanite Products Co., Ltd. of New Glasgow, for Torbanite residue as it comes from the Ginet retort [the chamber in which the coal was heated to extract oil]. This order comprises 250,000 tons at $4 a ton and becomes effective sixty days from July 5.”

Unfortunately, the good news did not last long. According to a 1933 Government of Canada report, “After making a few runs, [the plant] was nearly destroyed by fire in October, 1930.” Some oil was refined to near-lubricant quality but then the retort exploded. The resulting fire burned down the plant and office just a few months after they were built. The company disbanded shortly after, and the investors lost their money.

The pictures below are from Torbanite Products Limited’s facility.

Another company, Canadian Torbanite and By-Products Ltd., built “a small experimental plant at McLellan Brook about 5 miles from New Glasgow, at which some experimental work was conducted during 1929 and 1930, since when the plant has been idle,” according to the federal report. The company, a subsidiary of Oil and Nitrates Ltd., also did not restart.

Stellarton’s oil-rich coal was called “Stellar Coal.” The name described the sparks, which resembled stars, that resulted from burning it. Stellarton, which was founded by the General Mining Association, was originally named Albion Mines but its name was changed to Stellarton in 1870, a reference to Stellar Coal.

Nova Scotia’s coal deposits started forming 300 million years ago when Nova Scotia had a tropical climate – tectonic plate movement had us in the middle of supercontinent Pangea, down around the equator.

Swamps contained dense vegetation that died, drifted to the bottom of the swamps and gradually formed peat, a soggy, sponge-like material. As the peat accumulated, the weight of the top layers compacted the lower layers by squeezing out water.

The peat was buried over time by sediments and ocean water. Deeper burial increased pressure and heat on the vegetation, causing chemical and physical changes, and pushing out oxygen. Over thousands of years, this turned the peat into the coal that still provides about half of Nova Scotia’s electricity.

The oil in Stellarton’s oil shale came mainly from algae that was in the swamps where the coal formed. Other hydrogen-rich plant and animal material also contributed. Well-preserved fossil algae, with layers as thick as 15 centimetres, can be found in some of the richer oil shales in the area.

Pictou chemist James Fraser, who is credited with making the first chloroform in Canada, established an oil shale mine in Stellarton in 1859. See the story at