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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)

Towns along the pipeline routes grimly expect the construction to bring inflation, drugs and crime along with the economic boost for their rural economies. In Yellowknife, two new diamond mines have sent rents soaring and brought cocaine to the streets. Last month, the town experienced its first drive-by shooting.

"We know things are not going to work perfectly. They never do," said Bill Braden, a member of the territorial assembly in Yellowknife. "But the pipeline would give the communities and people of the Mackenzie Valley and Delta hope for the future. Right now, if I was a teenager, I wouldn't see a whole lot of reason to stay in the area."

Making a Choice

The bigger footprint, after the construction crews have left, will be in opening the mineral-rich area to further exploration and development.

Mostly for that reason, some environmentalists favor the Alaska Pipeline, which follows the route of the existing oil pipeline and Alaska Highway.

"We think it's the lesser environmental evil," said Stephen Hazell, a director of the Sierra Club of Canada. Environmental groups have largely bowed to the inevitability of at least one of the projects.

"Natural gas is clearly better than coal or oil," said Peter Ewins, a director of the World Wildlife Fund of Canada. "In principle, we are not opposed, if the development is done in a properly planned and well-balanced way."

The natural gas from either line would be fed into a grid of pipelines in Alberta that connects the United States and Canada into a largely seamless single market. Oil company officials say the soaring demand is in the United States, and that is where the gas would go.

But some environmentalists suspect that the Mackenzie pipeline, in particular, would feed the huge oil-sands project in Alberta. There, natural gas is used to cook strip-mined tar sludge into recoverable oil, a process environmentalists say is energy-inefficient and increases global warming.

"If we were convinced the gas was going to be used in people's homes to replace coal-fired energy, we would be much more sanguine about it," said Hazell.

Despite its much larger size, the Alaska Gas Pipeline could move more quickly. The oil pipeline and highway along the proposed route already have cleared the way with access rights, aboriginal land claims and environmental reviews. Since the 1970s, the TransCanada pipeline company has held rights to one route in Canada, and has laid groundwork on the Alaskan side as well.

"The gas market in North America really quite desperately needs this gas," TransCanada Chief Executive Hal Kvisle, said by phone from Calgary. "We think it would be quite foolish not to use" the company's access rights to speed up the project.

This quiet town on an island of the Mackenzie River, already wrapped in the gloom of winter.
This quiet town on an island of the Mackenzie River, already wrapped in the gloom of winter.(Douglas Struck)
Speed is what Alaska's Gov. Murkowski wants. He has made it a personal goal to find a way to get Alaska natural gas to market, foreseeing a second wave of the riches that poured into the state with the oil pipeline. All Alaskans still receive a yearly dividend check from the oil pipeline royalties.

"We are approaching an historic moment -- moving from 30 years of trying, to the reality of a gas line," the governor told reporters recently. He has proposed a novel sharing of ownership in which Alaska would have a 20 percent stake in the line.

"We're going to do it right this time," the governor said by phone from Anchorage after emerging from negotiations with the Prudhoe Bay producers Exxon-Mobil and BP. He already agreed to terms in October with a third company, ConocoPhillips. "The country needs the gas," he said. "This is the time."


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