NWT Premier Bob McLeod just returned from a trade mission to China and Japan. He has been putting on a lot of miles promoting economic development in the territory and a ‘Arctic Gateway’ pipeline that would bring bitumen from the Alberta oilsands to a deepwater port at Tuktoyaktuk for export to China or South Korea seems to be at the top of his list.
It is creative thinking. A deepwater port at Tuk would welcome the flow of ocean freighter traffic taking the new shortcut through the Northwest Passage opened by the Earth’s warming. It would also fuel the export of NWT oil, gas and minerals, plus facilitate exploitation of oil and natural gas riches under the Arctic Ocean. Importantly, it would be a permanent boost to the economies of all Mackenzie Delta communities.
The big issue is the unpredictably short export season when the ice pack retreats so tankers can navigate safely through the Beaufort Sea. We fear a scenario where industry buys into the idea, gets started with the planning for a project facilitated by NWT lobbying, then Alaska convinces those with the big bucks that the pipeline should take a detour at Norman Wells, follow the Canol Pass and go east to Juneau with its all-weather port. In that case the NWT would end up with a few hundred kilometres of pipeline and nothing else.
The NWT’s experience with oil pipelines is not good. The 866-km pipeline delivering oil from Norman Wells to Zama was built by Interprovincial Pipe Lines (now a division of Enbridge) and ESSO together, with a projected life of “30 years or more.” Evidence of poor construction emerged in 2013 when it made national news for its incidents of leaking and several large spills.
There are other serious downsides that would likely stymy the project. It would cross over both the Dehcho and Sahtu regions where the First Nations guard the integrity of their lands. There is a growing anti-pipeline movement, especially among the young. Of course, the whole point of the pipeline is to increase the export capacity of the oilsands, which would prompt an explosion of growth there, also unpopular. Since the NWT is downstream of that industrial activity and residents drink the water and eat the fish, there is considerable solidarity with the plight of First Nations whose lands are under siege from development. A wave of opposition is predictable.
An oilsands bitumen pipeline that would traverse the NWT would very likely be socially and politically divisive on a scale that would dwarf the protests of the famous Mackenzie Valley pipeline hearings of the 1970s. Simply put, it is not an achievable goal.