Norman Wells exists as a result of Canadian Government encouragement of oil exploration in the 1880s. Alexander Mackenzie had reported in the late 1700s that the Dene were using oil seeps along the Mackenzie to waterproof their canoes. But the region was remote and there was little interest until 1911 when prospector JK Cornwall investigated the oil seeps and discovered they consisted of high quality crude oil. Soon, Imperial Oil obtained leases and sent a drilling crew north. In 1920 they struck oil near the current site of Norman Wells.
The Norman Wells oilfield supplied regional communities and mining interests through the 1920s and 1930s. It also helped to support the development of aviation in the Mackenzie Valley with a ready supply of fuel and lubricants.
The threat of a Japanese invasion of North America in 1942 stirred outside interest in the Norman Wells oilfield. The United States military built the Alaska Highway, and in a bold move connected the Norman Wells oilfield, via a 4-inch diameter pipeline, to the Yukon and Alaska. This was the Canol Project – a rough road through almost impenetrable mountains, a tiny pipeline and a single telecommunications line. Though the pipeline was shut down and abandoned a year after it opened, outside interest in Norman Wells crude oil supplies continued to grow. By 1980, ambitious plans for oilfield recovery included construction of six artificial drilling islands in the Mackenzie River and a 12-inch pipeline to Alberta.
Over the past 90 years, Imperial Oil’s Norman Wells oilfield has produced more than 226 million barrels of sweet crude oil. In recent years, all of this production has been shipped to southern Canada.
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