A bid from a Calgary energy company eager to build a natural gas pipeline from Alaska through the Yukon to Alberta passed a major hurdle this month.
But it’s still far from breaking ground.
In the past, major hurdles have tripped up and shelved several similar pipeline proposals.
TransCanada Corporation plans to build a US$26.6 billion pipeline from Alaska’s massive gas reserves in the North Slope to an Alberta hub — with a large chunk running down the Alaska Highway through the Yukon.
The 2,700-kilometre pipeline would be operational by 2017, according the plan.
The corporation’s application was the only one of five that meets Alaska’s requirements under the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act. It is now in a 60-day public comment period and under legislative review.
But numerous pipeline plans have been abandoned as pipedreams many times before.
What makes the
current plan different?
Alaska’s governor scrapped the last pipeline proposal when she took over office in December 2006, citing numerous problems.
But the state is enthusiastic and confident about TransCanada Corporation’s application.
Energy demands, rising oil and gas prices and improved infrastructure have made the project more financially viable than ever before, according to the Alaska government.
“The market has changed considerably over the last decade” said Kurt Gibson, deputy director of Alaska’s natural resources’ oil and gas division.
“The notion of tapping North Slope gas has been around for a while, but the dynamics of the project has changed considerably over time for the better.”
Alaska and TransCanada’s determination to build the pipeline has environmentalists watching closely.
The long-term scope of the project makes it difficult to immediately see the accumulative effects of a mega-project, said Lewis Rifkind, Yukon Conservation Society energy co-ordinator.
Once the pipeline is shipping gas, development in the Yukon — in the Peel Plateau, Eagle Plains and the Whitehorse Trough Basin — will mushroom, he added.
Rifkind likens the building of the pipeline to the construction of a railway across the Prairies.
There were no farmsteads along the rail when it was under construction, but once it was finished, areas were quickly developed to take advantage of market opportunities, he said.
“There’s no point in looking for natural gas in the Whitehorse trough because you can’t get it out,” said Rifkind.
“Once that pipeline’s in place, there will be a staking rush like in Alberta.
“And the environmental impacts in Alberta are devastating. Their caribou herds have collapsed — there’s great concern about air and water quality.”
Whitehorse sits in the middle of a potential natural gas basin called the Whitehorse Trough Basin that from Atlin to south of Carmacks.
“Up ‘til now, the oil and gas have been in areas that’s mostly crown land, but if the trough is developed, we’ll see conflict,” said Rifkind.
“People have surface rights, whether it’s a farm or recreational property, but they don’t have sub-surface rights and those can be leased out to oil and gas companies and they can demand access.”
But it’s that kind of development that will bring long-term economic benefits to the territory, according to TransCanada.
“If the project proceeds, citizens can look forward to employment opportunities; there’ll be entrepreneurial opportunities during construction and there’ll be opportunities to take gas off the system,” said TransCanada spokesperson Cecily Dobson.
She wouldn’t confirm if those opportunities will be guaranteed under agreements with the territory or First Nations governments, but said, “There’ll be long-term benefits to residents.”
TransCanada officials have been speaking with First Nations holding land the pipeline will cross, but details of discussions were not provided.
“We have good relationships with First Nations along the route,” said Dobson.
Under the Northern Pipeline Act, a subsidiary of TransCanada holds the exclusive Canadian rights to build the pipeline.
TransCanada is eligible for US$500 million in grants from Alaska if the project is approved.
There has been little progress on a North Slope pipeline since the plans were first floated in the 1970s.
Rifkind has been studying the potential effects of a pipeline running through the Yukon for the last three decades.
Wildlife habitat fragmentation — affecting caribou herd migration —concerns the conservation society.
The large swath created by a buried pipeline, which could be 50- to 100-metres wide, plus the strip of highway, creates a difficult corridor for caribou to cross, said Rifkind.
With deforesting and increased oil and gas exploration, this creates a “devastating effect on the environment,” he added.
“We’re in an odd situation where (the Yukon government) has a responsibility to the environment, but there are also branches dedicated to developing oil and gas.
“It appears the oil and gas branch is in the driver’s seat at the moment.”