The Canol Pipeline:
A Cold Region Project with No Future
The Canadian Oil (Canol) pipeline project was
completed during World War II in support of the North American defences against the Japanese. The pipeline was designed to
transport crude oil produced at Norman Wells on the
The pipeline project was conceived and executed with very little
understanding of northern design and construction conditions,
however it is still one of the largest projects ever undertaken in northern
All that remains of the project today are abandoned camps, pipeline sections and pump stations, which are a legacy of the 35 month period during which the Canol project was conceived, constructed, operated and abandoned. The Canol pipeline project was a major event in Canadian cold region engineering history.
The Canadian Oil (Canol) pipeline project was
conceived in the early days of the Second World War when the Allied forces were
losing the war. Between
A route was selected for the
INITIATION OF EVENTS
American military planners invited two representatives of Imperial Oil Ltd.
to meet with them in late April, 1942 in order to obtain some specifics on
Norman Wells. Three generals, a representative of the American Board of
Economic Warfare, and the dean of the engineering school at the
This concept was considered feasible because the crude oil from Norman Wells was a wax base and would flow at extremely low temperatures. The pipeline and refinery were anticipated to be operating in five months.
Imperial Oil signed a contract in May, 1942 to drill at least nine new
wells, operate them, and construct additional storage tanks. A contract was
also signed with a consortium of three construction companies to build the
pipeline and refinery by
The Canadian House of Commons was informed of the Canol project and just prior to the contract signing, the War Committee of the Canadian Cabinet approved the project and granted permission to proceed.
Canol, as the project evolved to in August 1942,
became not only the one crude oil pipeline between Norman Wells and Whitehorse,
but also three distribution lines, roads, and a string of airports. The
distribution lines ran from
The distribution routes of the Canol project would
follow the newly completed transportation corridor of the
Norman Wells, Northwest Territories and Whitehorse, Yukon are separated by a
feature known as the MacKenzie Mountains, which is a
divide separating the watersheds of the Yukon River and the MacKenzie
Rivers. Only a few trappers, natives and gold-seekers had ever traversed the
An experienced Canadian land surveyor was hired by B-P-C to identify the
pipeline route. In June 1942 interviews with
In late October 1942, the company surveyor set out with a crew of 6 men and
25 sled dogs along the native trail. The route traversed by this team along the
trail was the route eventually followed by the pipeline. In November 1942, the
survey party passed through 1,500 metre
MacMillan pass, crossing over the divide into
Reconnaissance surveys by tractor train set out from Norman Wells in December 1942 and in March 1943. The difficulties of the reconnaissance survey included diesel fuel which froze to the consistency of vaseline, and light engine oil which froze as hard as grease. Engines were kept running twenty-four hours a day because to allow an engine to stop once meant stopping it for good.
These ground reconnaissance surveys established the general route of the
pipeline. However, a number of alternatives were considered before the route
was finalized only months before the joining of the rights-of-way in the
The Canol project was faced with the task of
building its own transportation system into the
The first phase of equipment mobilization was by barge to Norman Wells from
the end of rail 460 km north of
Freeze up of the river systems preempted the complete mobilization by river
in 1942 and a second phase of mobilization began by winter road from
As the project proceeded, mobilization began on several other fronts,
Another significant part of the continuing mobilization were
the airfields built up the
The main concerns during construction were engineering problems and efforts to minimize the time required to complete the project. Initially, the construction practices used were identical to those used in the south, however, ice-rich permafrost was present in many areas along the route, along with muskeg, and this created difficult construction situations.
The problem was that the engineers were not familiar with permafrost and how
to deal with it. For example, a few miles inland from the
During the road construction it was impossible from surface inspection to determine the subsurface conditions. In numerous cases alignment relocations were necessary to by-pass unstable ground not apparent at the time of location, or which developed once the ground was exposed to warmer temperatures.
In addition to the construction of road, 65 pile driven bridges were constructed with local wood materials. Eight hundred and twenty culverts, with sizes ranging from 450 mm to 1500 mm were also required. Road construction required between 160,000 to 200,000 cubic metres of borrow material for surfacing and filling.
The military were initially responsible for the construction of the western
half of the road from Norman Wells to
The completed pipelines of the Canol project
consisted of 4 different interconnected systems. The 100 mm crude oil supply
line form Norman Wells to
Each of the section of line required a number of pumping stations, including
10 stations between Norman Wells and
The 10 pumping stations between Norman Wells and
Pipeline construction followed immediately behind the road construction. The pipeline was constructed using 6 to 7 metre lengths of pipe, each weighing approximately 100 kilograms (100 mm diameter). The pipe sections were supported by wood blocks and welded in place.
The eastern part of the pipeline was completed during the winter and the two
pipe-laying crews, working from opposite ends of the crude oil pipeline route
Telephone Line Construction
An independent telephone communication system was constructed between Norman
The telephone line construction was labour intensive and tractors were only used occasionally. Pole erection was completed by hand and movement of poles from the road to erection sites was completed by horses. The excavation of holes was mainly done by hand, using shovels or dynamite in the permafrost areas. A typical blast hole in the permafrost could be six feet in diameter and three feet deep.
The telephone system was the full length of the crude oil pipeline, with six
repeater stations between Norman wells and
The objective of the Canol project was simply to
get the job done as quickly as possible, therefore
little regard was given for environmental concerns. The fast track construction
of the pipeline contributed significantly to repeated breaks which occurred
after start-up, and as a result, in the first nine months of operation,
approximately 7 million litres of crude oil were
spilled along the length of the pipeline. A 12.7 million litre storage tank on
the banks of the
Oil was pumped through the crude oil pipeline for a total of 16 months from
During this period
From the oil production aspect, 61 oil wells went into production in Norman Wells during the construction and operating period.
ABANDONMENT AND SALVAGE
Upon terminating the project, the
In 1947, Imperial Oil acquired the salvage rights to the project for less than $1,000,000. Imperial Oil Ltd. also acquired title to the assets of the United States Government at Norman Wells for $3,000,000 (1945 dollars) in September 1945. Salvage companies removed brass valves, power units, motors, and pipe from the project.
Abandonment was completed prior to spring breakup in order to avoid the
delay and maintenance costs associated with keeping the road open during and
after spring thaw. With the abandonment of the project in 1945, road blocks
were established to restrict access to the
The distribution lines to
refinery, which cost $24 million to ship from
The total project, whose official cost was $135 million (1944) dollars) may have cost as much as $300 million, in addition to utilizing more than 200,000 metric tons of equipment.
No attempt was made to completely rehabilitate any of the disturbances created by the Canol project. Although a number of pipe sections still remain, most of the line is gone, however vehicle dumps, barrel caches and camps remain, despite the numerous official and unofficial salvages that have been carried out since 1945.