A century of production
It was in August of 1920 that Imperial’s first rig in Norman Wells struck oil, making this month the 100th anniversary for one of Canada’s oldest oilfields.
We have had to adjust our celebration plans because of COVID-19 restrictions as well as the current economic environment, but still wanted to share the incredible story of this asset and the role it played in Imperial and Canada’s history.
Learn more about Norman Wells, Canada’s longest-operating conventional onshore oilfield, below.
In 1787, Alexander Mackenzie took up his post as partner with the North West Company in the Athabasca region. A born explorer, Mackenzie set out in 1789 on what is now known as the Mackenzie River to find a passage by water through the Northwest portion of the continent. A couple weeks later, he reached the Arctic Ocean but not where he had hoped.
While his time in the area did finally result in the first-ever journey across North America north of Mexico, he wrote about another discovery made in 1789: "Bituminous fountains; into which a pole of twenty feet long may be inserted without the least resistance. The bitumen is in a fluid state, and when mixed with gum or the resinous substance collected from the Spruce Fir, serves to gum the canoes.” Local history contains references to a wide variety of uses of bitumen by Indigenous families who resided in the area and how this information was shared with the early explorers.
Those veins of bitumen sat undisturbed by outsiders for more than 100 years until 1911 when the Canadian Government’s encouragement of oil exploration sent a prospector by the name of J.K. Cornwall to the area. Cornwall then hired a Dené trapper by the name of Karkassee, who led him to a small pool of oil on the banks of the Mackenzie where Cornwall collected samples to be sent to Pittsburgh for analysis. The oil was determined to be of high quality, so Cornwall and a geologist by the name of Dr. T.O. Bosworth staked claims: one claim for Cornwall and three for Bosworth (for whom Bosworth Creek was named).
Imperial entered the game and purchased all four shares, then sent geologist Dr. Ted Link along with eight men, a drilling rig and an ox on the 1,900-kilometre trek by train, river and foot from Edmonton, Alberta. Archives show the assistance these early explorers received from the local Indigenous peoples helping the men to survive and work through the cold winter but the ox did not survive, ultimately being served for Christmas dinner.
During that time, Link recognized the expertise that locals could provide and hired them to assist with identifying suitable areas to lay claim to as much land as possible in the area. One year after their arrival, in August 1920 - 100 years ago - a rig on one of these claims struck oil resulting in a 25 metre “gusher.” That location became known as Norman Wells, in the Slavey language: Tłegǫ́hłı̨ (Thleh-go-lee) or "where there is oil", due to its proximity to Fort Norman, which is today known as Tulita. The development of the oilfield would also bring change to the traditional way of life in the region.
Surveying from the sky
Despite efforts to keep the discovery quiet, word spread during the winter of 1920-21 and hundreds of people started making plans to come to the area after spring breakup of the Mackenzie to stake their own claims. Imperial’s response was to purchase two new airplanes to survey from the sky and stake claims around the existing well. The two planes, named Rene and Vic, started the journey from Edmonton, hopscotching their way north through the cold and snow. The explorers again engaged and relied upon local expertise and guidance, to help them in navigating the challenging environment, continuing to build a relationship between the local community and the company.
When the planes tried to touch down in Fort Simpson, about 500 kilometres to the south of Norman Wells, Rene tilted forward in the fresh snow breaking her propeller and damaging a ski. Vic, landed without issue but had developed a bad knock in her engine. The mechanics onboard the planes took the good skis and propeller from Vic and put them on the crashed Rene so she could complete her journey north. But when Rene tried to take off the plane stalled, causing it to crash and break the good propeller.
It seemed as though Vic and Rene would be stuck in Fort Simpson, along with their crews, until a paddlewheel boat could make the trip with new parts in July, after the river thawed. In desperation, the pilots turned to the local Hudson Bay trading post and asked the partners there if they could help out. Astonishingly, they built a replica of the propeller using an old oak toboggan and glue made from boiled moose hides and hooves (another example of local Indigenous ingenuity and knowledge shared to support the explorers). The moose-propeller worked flawlessly and Imperial was able to stake the entire Norman Wells oilfield from the air.
Closures, restarts and refining
By 1924, Imperial determined local demand for oil products wasn’t enough to sustain production at Norman Wells, so the existing wells were capped and Imperial withdrew for several years. That is, until 1932 when mining in the area justified the reopening of wells and the drilling of new wells. In 1935, goldmines in the area of Yellowknife created more demand and the oil once again began to flow. As a result, a small refinery capable of producing 1,100 barrels per day was built by Imperial. 1935 was also the first documented contract with a local Indigenous business where Ronald MacKinnon, superintendent, hired Hib Hodgson a local Métis man for dismantle, salvage and relocation of equipment.
The refinery production of fuel oil, gasoline and aviation fuel was used for boats, land vehicles and in the air. The availability of aviation fuel is largely credited with the increased aerial exploration in the Northwest Territories, as planes were now able to travel further north after refuelling.
The Canol project
After the bombing of Pearl Harbour it became painfully obvious how close Alaska was to Japan. In order to protect the state and Canada from possible enemy attacks, huge quantities of fuel and equipment would be needed.
So in May of 1942, with the U.S. concerned about the supply of oil for the war effort, Washington D.C. executed a U.S. War Department contract to further expand Norman Wells and to build a pipeline to Whitehorse. This project would become known as the Canol project (combining the words Canada and oil) with the Imperial Oil Company, Standard Oil Company of California and other architects and contractors. The contract fulfilment itself was aided and supervised by the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers.
The local Sahtu, Dené and Métis people played a crucial role as much of the land that the pipeline traversed was only known to local Indigenous peoples. The Sahtu people assisted the American military by helping to decide where to lay the pipe and the accompanying road to join the Mackenzie Valley to the Yukon.
Once completed, the project consisted of 60 new wells, which increased production by some 3,000 barrels per day, 2,512 kilometres of pipeline, tank farms, airfields and an oil refinery in Whitehorse. The project took 20 months to build from start to finish, from June 1942 until the “golden weld”- the last weld, on the Northwest Territories-Yukon border.
The final cost of the project was in the hundreds of millions of dollars and it employed more than 25,000 people. In 1944, Imperial and the Government of Canada signed an agreement granting exclusive rights to drill, mine, win and extract all the petroleum for three terms of 21 years.
But that project was short lived when in March of 1945, the U.S. Army terminated the project with the pipeline only having been in operation for 11 months and delivering only one million barrels.
With the drop in demand, wells were once again capped and production at Norman Wells fell back to the pre-war levels of 1,000 barrels per day. The Canol project also meant Imperial had a better understanding of the resources in the area, as recoverable reserves were now estimated at 30 million barrels.
Islands in the stream
In the mid-1980s, peak oil meant something entirely different than it does today: then it meant peak supply. To address the decline in oil reserves and to access more oil, Imperial devised a plan to extract oil from below the river using manmade islands.
At the time, the Norman Wells field was considered the fourth largest oil deposit in Canada and in 1982 Imperial undertook an expansion and added six more artificial islands and additional wells. The islands were built over two summers, with four islands constructed in 1983 (Rayuka, Rampart, Dehcho and Ekwe) and the remaining two (Iteh K’ee and Little Bear) constructed in 1984. The project manager for this significant undertaking was Mel Benson - one of many Indigenous people who played key roles in the oilfield over its history.
Designed to withstand a once-in-250 year flood, each island is a sand-filled structure held by a ring of rock and protected by armour stones at the upstream corner of each to protect from the mighty Mackenzie and the great forces of ice.
The islands are connected with 26 kilometres of marine utility corridors carrying produced fluids, injection gas, water and power cables. During the time of island construction, Interprovincial Pipeline (now Enbridge) which Imperial owned 33 percent of at the time, started construction of a pipeline from Norman Wells to Zama, Alberta. Commissioned in 1985, the 868-km line drove production to 30,000 barrels per day.
People of Norman Wells
Where we are now
While currently under maintenance, Norman Wells still produces today. About 70 employees and 50 contractors are employed full time in normal day-to-day operations.
Our relationships with the local communities and Indigenous peoples began in the earliest days and remains strong after 100 years, going far beyond business. We are proud of our relationships with the local communities and the knowledge and expertise they continue to share with us. Through the entire history of Norman Wells' operations our workforce has always included Sahtu people. A number of local companies provide services to Imperial’s operations, including aviation and marine transportation, accommodations, well servicing, construction, maintenance and emergency support. We also invest approximately $100,000 to $200,000 annually including community programs, sponsorship and education awards and scholarships.