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Arctic Times

Mackenzie Valley: balancing nature, culture and natural gas

A Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline is looking increasingly likely – but will Canada ensure that this megadevelopment project, affecting huge regions of unfragmented wilderness, balances natural and cultural values? BY Peter Ewins & William Carpenter

WF, the conservation organisation, believes it can and will, and is working in partnership with the indigenous peoples organisations, First Nations, industry, and governments to ensure the simultaneous completion of a network of ecologically and culturally representative protected areas in the affected natural regions.

The Mackenzie is one of the world’s great rivers – in good company with the Nile, Congo, Yangtse, Lena, Indus, Rhine and Amazon. But it is now almost unique in its natural state – no dams, diversions or major developments along its full course and valley. It also provides the largest single source of freshwater and nutrients to the Arctic Ocean. The Mackenzie
Valley’s biophysical features are undoubtedly of global significance, and will be major considerations as development plans and assessments proceed for the new energy corridor between the Mackenzie Delta north of Inuvik through the Northwest Territories (NWT) to existing gas pipeline networks in northern Alberta, 1,350km away (see map).

Whether or not the Mackenzie natural gas reserves (an estimated 0.17 billion Sm3 o.e) are hooked-up with gas piped from northern Alaska (estimated to be at least an order of magnitude larger than the Mackenzie reserves), this will be the largest development project financially ever attempted in the circum-Arctic (with an estimated $US 3-4 billion price tag), and will result in the world’s longest pipeline. Of course, this new energy corridor will foster other industrial developments across the adjacent landscape – oil and gas, mining, forestry, hydro ventures, increased road access, etc. All this new development will undoubtedly have huge social, economic, cultural and environmental impacts across the entire region, affecting areas well beyond the relatively narrow corridor selected for the main gas pipeline.

Local Aboriginal organizations are now generally supportive of the mega-project, unlike previous attempts, which were postponed until Aboriginal land claims were settled and measures put in place to protect natural and cultural values. Today, three of the four Aboriginal land claims have been settled along the NWT portion of the potential pipeline route.
Those groups (the Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Sahtu) have signed a joint pipeline venture with the major group of Mackenzie operators – Imperial Oil Resources, Conoco Phillips, Shell Canada, and Exxon Mobil Canada. The Deh Cho First Nations in the western NWT are still negotiating for Treaty Rights and Self-Government Agreements.

Governments and the Canadian public also seek developments of this kind, for a secure energy supply, jobs, and revenue, though conservation of cultural and natural values are also top priorities in this huge nation of relatively pristine natural areas, where many northern communities still depend on hunting and trapping of wildlife for their livelihoods and cultural identity.

Canada was the first industrialized nation to sign the Biodiversity Convention (1992), which spawned widespread adoption of the principles of “sustainable development” as a core target and policy for decision-making. In the same year federal, provincial and territorial governments signed Canada’s Tri- Council commitment to complete the network of protected areas in the 486 natural terrestrial regions of Canada by 2000. However, less than 1/3 of these natural regions are adequately protected to-date. In the Mackenzie Valley, most natural regions contain no protected areas – in Alaska the coverage of protected areas is far better, and includes the areas adjacent to the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline (see map).

Canada embraced the attitude of developing natural resources in the Arctic in a sensitive way with “environmental protection” as a top priority. As a key player in the eight-nation Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) – now the Arctic Council – Canada also committed itself to the ongoing Circumpolar Protected Areas Network (CPAN) initiative, to complete a representative network of protected natural habitats to help balance future resource development with the conservation of nature and culture.

Although there is a recognized need to consider cumulative impacts of these developments, there is still a huge degree of uncertainty about this, as existing and subsequent developments will also impact the same areas and cultures. This is precisely why there must be a broad, landscape-level approach, reserving a network of ecologically and culturally representative protected areas almost as an insurance policy, safeguarding samples of the natural northern world, which will also serve as crucial benchmark reference areas, against which to assess development impacts.

Many remain fundamentally opposed to the very notion of creating major industrial corridors through what remains of the world’s wilderness areas. Citizens, including northerners, are still very nervous about the long-term impacts of such mega-development on their culture, their economy, their environment and the wildlife that have sustained them for thousands of years, not to mention the climatic change and its striking impacts, which are now especially evident in the Arctic! Substantial investment is needed in the regulatory system, and in regional planning to prescribe appropriate land and resource use. Public and government statements and commitments reflect the need and philosophy behind this common sense “balanced approach”. Not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry and investors also seek this approach, which minimizes the likelihood of developmental delays, resulting in fewer costly battles in the courts or out on the tundra.

With this solid philosophy and universally accepted principle of balanced development, the major stakeholders are now conducting feasibility studies and initial socioeconomic,
engineering and environmental assessments of specific route options, prior to filing a formal development application in the next year or so. GIS-based mapping of all existing biophysical and natural resource information is required to identify priority areas, and then close collaboration with the communities to confirm and update these data is needed. WWF is currently conducting this work within the existing NWT Protected Areas Strategy (PAS) partnership of Aborginal communities, industry and governments and environmental organizations. The resulting maps and data will be made widely available. This information will then be used in the PAS to help identify and reserve an adequate network of culturally and ecologically important areas for legal protection while finalizing and approving the pipeline route and its associated infrastructure.

This large-scale, high-profile and timely opportunity will position Canada as a lead nation in environmental and cultural protection, showcasing a major commitment to a truly balanced, “sustainable” approach. All the players involved hope and expect that Canada will seize this opportunity.

Peter Ewins
Director Arctic Conservation
William Carpenter
Regional Conservation Director
NWT, WWF-Canada