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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)

That has changed. Natural gas prices are now at all-time highs, greatly enhancing the lure of profits. Every energy forecast shows a yawning gap between supply and the rising demand. More natives of the north now see economic opportunity in the pipelines, and their necessity is reluctantly being conceded by even environmental groups.

"The economics are right. Everyone needs this supply to come on line," said John Duncan, a member of the Canadian Parliament and the Conservative Party's expert on natural resources. "The real question is which is going to be built first."

Industry analysts say the projects would require so much capital, steel and skilled labor that it would be impractical to build both at the same time. The projects have been jostling for position, sparking what former Alberta energy minister Murray Smith has called "the great pipeline race." Oil company officials would prefer the shorter Mackenzie line to go through first, but delays have jeopardized that possibility.

Four reserves of Indians -- known as First Nations here -- are involved in negotiations to permit the Mackenzie line to cross their land. The four oil companies behind the project have agreed to give First Nations a one-third share of the line, and the federal government in July offered $425 million for native social programs as an incentive. But the bands are split over the proposal.

Native Claims

Antoine, 64, is a member of the Deh Cho, a band of about 4,000 members on land centered at Fort Simpson, a quiet town on an island accessible by ferry in the summer and by a road carved on the river ice in the winter.

He grew up hunting caribou and moose, snaring rabbits and cutting holes in the ice to fish in the winter. He remembers a hard life, remembers being hungry when the game disappeared. But he is wary of the coming pipeline, and the change it will bring.

A lone caribou walks across the Dalton Highway near the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
A lone caribou walks across the Dalton Highway near the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.(Al Grillo - AL GRILLO PHOTOGRAPHY)
"You can still have freedom to roam here. You can travel for 100 miles without running into any other tracks, camping wherever you want, drinking out of any stream," he said of the Deh Cho lands.

Herb Norwegian, the blunt chief of the Deh Cho, said his people see no reason why they should not get what they want from oil companies making huge profits. He has asked for fees, royalties and jobs, but his fundamental demand is of the government, which has yet to settle Deh Cho land claims.

"If the pipeline is going to pass through our land, the government has to treat us like the landlords," Norwegian said.

Not all agree with him. Harry Deneron, 63, a member of the Deh Cho group of chiefs, said change already has come, and the First Nations people should benefit.

"Our people will be the first to complain if their hot-water heater goes up," he said with a laugh. "We should accept the pipeline, with conditions. We have to compromise. This has gone on too long."

Either project would march a small army of construction workers into the north for several years. They would carve roads, haul steel, dig a trench through the permafrost and bury the pipeline before departing. The Alaska Pipeline project alone would be more than double the size of the 800-mile-long trans-Alaska oil pipeline finished in 1977, which took 21,000 construction workers three years to build.


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