A 'Great Pipeline Race' in Canada

Dog sleds are typical in Fort Simpson, along the route of a proposed natural gas line. Town officials say pipelines would bring an economic boost, but also drugs and crime.
Dog sleds are typical in Fort Simpson, along the route of a proposed natural gas line. Town officials say pipelines would bring an economic boost, but also drugs and crime. (Photos By Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 5, 2005

FORT SIMPSON, A wind prickly with ice bit at Jonas Antoine, the gray-haired native elder. The sting brought a broad grin to his face. "I feel like a wolf in this weather, ready to hunt," he said, leaning against the driving chill.

The cold thrill of sneaking toward a keen-eared moose or snaring a lynx calls him, but Antoine spends days in a stuffy gymnasium, debating with chiefs and elders the looming invader from the north: a huge pipeline from the Arctic that all agree would irrevocably change this land.

Soaring energy prices and profits have revived plans for two massive pipelines -- the biggest private construction projects in North America -- to bring natural gas hundreds of miles south from the frozen Arctic Ocean, through vast untouched forests and under wild rivers, to the United States.

The plans would flood isolated areas of Alaska and Canada with thousands of construction workers, pump billions of dollars into poor native economies, and bring the roar of heavy cranes and bulldozers to pristine areas where it is now quiet enough to hear the hoots of snowy owls and the rustle of pine boughs.

The projects are crucial to keep up with the growing thirst for energy in the United States, say oil company officials and energy analysts. Supporters and opponents agree that the projects would affect Canada's sparsely populated north on a scale larger than the Alaska oil pipeline in the 1970s, and unleash a rush of new exploration and drilling.

"Every square inch is going to be opened to diamonds, sapphires, gold, oil and gas," Michael Miltenberger, the Northwest Territories minister of natural resources, said in an interview in the territories' capital of Yellowknife. "There's an insatiable demand. And the critical first step is the pipeline."

There are daunting obstacles before any construction begins: The two pipeline projects are in competition for workers and capital -- only one can be built at a time. Native groups in Canada have not yet given access rights; environmentalists fret over caribou and the permafrost; and the pipeline companies face a mountain of regulatory red tape and promised lawsuits.

But the huge profits in the energy business, and the unquenchable demand for energy in the United States, have given the projects an impetus that may make one -- or both -- projects unstoppable.

"The time and events are right. It would be very hard to turn your back on this kind of supply," Miltenberger said.

Pipe Dreams No More

Of the two lines, the Alaska Gas Pipeline is the behemoth. Its most likely route would stretch 1,700 miles from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay to Canada's Alberta province. The line would cost $20 billion and take a decade to build, but the project has picked up momentum under the whip of Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski (R) and $18 billion in loan guarantees approved last year by Congress.

The second line, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, would start 250 miles east of the Alaska line, on Canada's portion of the Beaufort Sea. It would snake 800 miles through forests of spruce and pine along the Mackenzie River -- one of the world's longest with no bridge or dam. This all-Canada route would cost $6 billion and is predicted to take three years to complete once construction begins.

Both projects have been pipe dreams for three decades. Drillers who flocked to the cold deserts of Alaska's North Slope after oil was discovered in 1968 also found vast deposits of natural gas. But there has been no way to move the gas to markets; it cannot flow in the oil pipeline. Oil producers proposed both the Alaska and Mackenzie gas pipelines in the 1970s, but the plans died under the weight of rising construction costs, dropping natural gas prices and -- in Canada -- opposition from native groups.

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