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Canadian Petroleum Heritage
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Canada's Arctic

Oil gusherFor over 100 years the Arctic has been studied for potential natural resources. Aboriginal Peoples living in the Arctic near the Mackenzie River used hydrocarbons to seal up seams on canoes. As Europeans moved into the Arctic, they were shown by the Aboriginal Peoples the oil seeps. Records from trading posts mention an active trade in tar: Rond Lake near Fort Good Hope was noted as a major source of tar. R.G. McConnell of the Geological Survey wrote in 1889:

The Devonian rocks are nearly everywhere more or less petroliferous and over large areas afford promising indications of the presence of oil in workable quantities…The possible oil country along the Mackenzie valley is thus seen to be almost co-extensive with that of the valley itself. Its remoteness from the present centres of population and its situation north of the still un-worked Athabasca and Peace River oil field will probably delay its development for some years to come, but this is only a question of time.

From this starting point, the discovery of oil and gas in the Arctic has been difficult and rewarding at the same time. Many projects were initiated, such as the CANOL project in the 1940’s. From Leduc up to Zama in northwestern Alberta, exploration of the Artic continued, including the 1954 mapping of surface structures by J.C. Sproule and Associates. The data indicated that gas could be present. Test hole drilling and the drilling of Briggs Rabbit Lake No. 1 confirmed that there was natural gas there. Subsequently, Shell Canada Limited drilled four holes in the Alexandra wells area, with Imperial Oil, Amerada, Scurry-Rainbow, Amoco, and others conducting seismic analysis of the area.

All these efforts resulted in no major finds. The companies searching for oil refused to give up, and continued to build on their knowledge of the area’s geology. The emphasis was now to move even further north in search of unknown resources. Areas such as the Cameron Hills and the Liard Plateau were believed to hold deposits of oil and gas. In anticipation, roughly 350 wells were drilled south of the Arctic Circle during the 1950s and 1960s. The first Arctic Island well was drilled in 1961-62 by Dome Petroleum on Melville Island. Other wells followed on Cornwallis and Bathurst Islands. Although wells were abandoned, Melville Island was the site of further significant gas discoveries. Panarctic Petroleum, made up of industry and government initiatives, found gas at Drake Point on Melville Island in 1969.

Momentum continued with the Mackenzie Delta, including Tuktoyaktuk peninsula and Parson’s Lake wells yielding large gas reserves. Drilling continued in the Arctic onshore and offshore on artificial islands made from ice. An oil discovery was also made at Bent Horn at Cameron Island. However, with the new push to the farthest reaches of the Arctic issues that had been ignored were now surfacing. Concerns such as Aboriginal land claims, social and environmental impacts needed to be addressed by the government of Canada and industry. The Thomas Berger Inquiry of 1977, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, recommended a ten year moratorium on the construction of a huge pipeline in the Mackenzie Delta demonstrating that these issues were important to the overall development of the Arctic.

This did not halt all production and, in fact, one of the biggest developments of the eighties took place at Norman Wells. Imperial Oil began to develop more of the area that they acquired in the 1920s and built a pipeline that connected Norman Wells to Zama, Alberta. The Aboriginal Peoples were now being involved and initiating industry development. Land clam settlements during the 1990s with the Gwich’in (southern Mackenzie Delta) and the Sahtu (central Mackenzie Valley, Colville Hills, Great Bear Lake Region) resulted in the opening of many new sites previously disputed.

The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline has been considered among the largest projects to go forward in the north. The Aboriginal Pipeline Group (APG) represented the interests of the Aboriginal Peoples of the Northwest Territories and may acquire up to a one-third interest in the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. The involvement of all groups in the exploration of oil and gas was central to its success. Since the first oil well was drilled in 1920, knowledge of the northern basin has increased enormously. Geological information from drilling, seismic, and surface mapping has led to the opening of over 1900 oil and gas wells. Today, projects such as the Mackenzie pipeline were the results of these past initiatives by the many workers and oil companies tapping into the Arctic’s resources.

This video clip gives an idea of what life was like in the artic for the workers, specifically during the CANOL project. Watch


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