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CANOL Pipeline Project (Mid 1940s)

From the original hiring poster for the CANOL project, June 15, 1942:

This is no picnic! Working and living conditions on this job are as difficult as those encountered on any construction job ever done in the United States or foreign territory. Men hired for this job will be required to work and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Temperatures will range from 50 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold. Mosquitoes, files and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm.

If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions do not apply.

The United States’ involvement in the Second World War began in 1941 with increasing fears that Alaska would be attacked by Japan. If an attack happened, the American government was concerned that the flow of oil to the south would halt. The US and Canadian government knew to secure the northern resources, a pipeline had to be built. They also knew an oil refinery needed to be built to support the military and their vehicles. Both governments agreed on a deal and created the Canadian oil agreement or CANOL project. The mandate of the project was to increase production of the Norman Wells field to 3,000 barrels of oil a day, build a refinery at Whitehorse, then run a 600 mile long pipeline from the oil field to the refinery for the crude oil.

One major step had to be undertaken before any building could commence. To supply gasoline for the planes, military vehicles, and construction equipment needed, a highway had to be built from Fairbanks, Alaska to Dawson Creek, British Columbia. In 1942, the Alaskan-Canadian highway (ALCAN) was begun. The ALCAN was to be engineered and under the control of the US Army Corps of Engineers, with support from the US War Department and Bechtel Price-Callahan, a civilian construction company. The work would be extremely hard on the workers and equipment as the harsh arctic land and weather would take its toll.

Men working in the freezing and difficult conditions building the CANOL camp, late 1940s.The equipment and personnel were brought through Edmonton, Alberta to then carry on to the Northern Alberta Railway some 285 miles to the end of the railway line at Dawson Creek. The route to Norman Wells proved inadequate, so a 1,000 mile winter road was constructed in the Mackenzie River valley. Horrible conditions meant for slow going in the construction process. Due to inadequate Arctic-weight clothing for the Army engineers, the employees were forced to burn lumber and bridge timbers to keep warm. Finally, Camp CANOL was set up near the Norman Wells refinery to house the men and equipment. For two years, workers built the refinery and constructed the pipeline to Whitehorse.

Norman Wells were drilled by the Noble Drilling Corporation of Oklahoma. In 1944, the crude oil from Norman Wells flowed into Whitehorse, where the already-completed tank and refinery were ready. Sixty new wells were built increasing production significantly. At the height of operations, the CANOL pipeline carried 3000 barrels of oil per day. After being open for only one year, the operation was shut down. The $134 million CANOL Project was no longer needed: the war ended with no Japanese invasion of Alaska. The oil field that was to support troops in the area was no longer necessary.

The refinery got its second chance at life because of the Leduc oil field. In 1947, Imperial Oil needed to build a refinery for the overflowing reserves from the Leduc wells. Short on time, the construction of a refinery would take too long. However, someone suggested moving the Whitehorse refinery to Edmonton, at the same cost but less time than building anew. With the money paid for the rights to the US Foreign Liquidation Commission of $1 million, the refinery was taken apart and shipped to Edmonton.

A further legacy of the CANOL project was the road, still being used for small vehicles from the Alaskan highway to the Yukon/NWT border. From there it became the CANOL Heritage Trail. Unfortunately, due to the inaccessible locations of some camps, a great many pieces of machinery have been left behind, such as work trucks.

For further information on Norman Wells and the CANOL project, visit the NWT government site: http://www.iti.gov.nt.ca/mog/oil_gas/history.htm

The legacy of the CANOL Project is mixed, as many believe the project was a failure. Listen

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