Pipeline controversies

In order to extract bitumen and then refine what's left over, the production of a barrel of synthetic crude oil from the tar sands always requires huge amounts of heat. This, in turn, depends upon a vast input of energy. To put the point another way, pumping one barrel of oil, or its equivalent, into the site at Athabasca to generate this heat enables the production of just three barrels. This also makes its production very expensive: the cost of producing one barrel is around $30-$40, more than six times the figure of extracting oil from some Middle Eastern wells.

The most usual power source for this task is natural gas, and the oil companies that are developing Alberta know where an excellent source is to be found. Lying northwards, above the Arctic Circle, is the Beaufort-Mackenzie Basin, which is home to vast deposits of natural gas that could be tapped and then piped southwards to feed the energy-hungry project at Athabasca. With the exception of local gas production from the onshore Ikhil field near Inuvik, none of these deposits has as yet been developed, but there are lots of other places that energy companies have been watching with a rapacious eye, even if Shell's drive to exploit the Beaufort Sea has been temporarily checked.

By early 2009, more than 180 exploration wells and around 60 development wells had been drilled in the Beaufort-Mackenzie Basin, resulting in the discovery of more than 50 oil and gas fields. Many of these are located on the mainland, such as the vast Taglu field, which is reckoned to have recoverable natural gas reserves of 2 trillion cubic feet, and the Parsons Lake field, where there are also very large deposits. Some enormous offshore fields have also been located, such as Amauligak, with an estimated 235 million barrels of oil and 1.3 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves. In general, this particular region is reckoned to harbour around 9 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas and 1 billion barrels of recoverable oil, which is equivalent to about 20 per cent of the total oil potential in all of Canada's frontier basins and 20 per cent of its total gas reserves.

In the eyes of environmentalists, exploiting these deposits would be bad enough, inflicting considerable damage on the natural landscape. But the construction of a pipeline that would then move natural gas to Alberta would deal the region a devastating blow. Building and maintaining any pipeline that stretches 800 miles would require the construction of a whole network of roads and buildings that would completely transform the entire area. This, continues the green lobby, would have immense, tragic and far-reaching consequences for a unique region. This was the main line of argument made in the late 1970s by a Canadian judge, Thomas Berger, who was appointed to consider an earlier proposal to build a pipeline through the same area. In particular, Berger warned that the river valley would become a vast 'energy corridor' covered with feeder pipelines, airports, roads and electric utilities, creating a huge area of urban sprawl.

It is easy to see the environmentalists' argument. The Mackenzie River Basin is a huge area of around 1.4 billion acres of contiguous forest, one that is relatively untouched by modernity (Map 2). It is home to an estimated 360,000 people, a largely indigenous population that is highly dependent on the local myriad of rivers, lakes, deltas and waterways. It is also rich in wildlife and is heavily used by thousands of birds, notably waterfowl, which breed along the Arctic coast and migrate every year across the forest.

Those who argue in favour of building the pipeline claim that other, similar projects have been undertaken before and proved protestors wrong by allowing traditional ways of life to continue and have not seriously impacted on wildlife. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, one of the most bitterly contested issues on Capitol Hill was the construction of a pipeline that would run southwards from the newly discovered oilfields at Prudhoe Bay through the great wilderness region of Alaska. From the moment that proposals were put forward, environmental groups moved quickly to try and block the project, claiming that the plans did not meet the strict demands made by the new National Environmental Policy Act and persuading a federal judge to grant an immediate injunction that stopped any work on the project from proceeding.

Throughout the country the issue was hotly debated, with many people taking the view that America's last great wilderness should be spared the pipeline and preserved intact.

After years of wrangling, the issue was eventually settled in July 1973 after a dramatic vote in Congress, when a debate on the project was deadlocked with 49 senators voting in favour of the pipeline and 49 against. It was the Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, who decided the outcome, casting his vote in favour of the proposed Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act. Work on the pipeline began within months and was completed 4 years later at a cost of $7.7 billion.

But one key difference between the Mackenzie River and Alaskan projects is that the Canadian pipeline is intended to feed the tar sands operation in Athabasca. Environmentalists have a particular loathing for these tar sands not just because their excavation involves destroying so much natural habitat, but also because they also release far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than other, lighter forms of oil. This is why some campaigners are not opposed to the construction of a pipeline that would follow an alternative route, diverting natural gas from the Mackenzie River Basin to another destination market. One of America's biggest lobby groups has supported a pipeline that would move the gas through Alaska to reach American consumers. 'The Alaska pipeline would be much longer than the Mackenzie Valley pipelines and carry three times as much gas, but is likely to cause less ecological damage', as the directors of the Sierra Club have argued, and therefore 'may be the lesser environmental evil'. Whereas 'the Mackenzie pipeline . . . would cause greater ecological fragmentation, not to mention harm caused by induced development along the pipeline route' because it crossed through much more intact forest and tundra, 'Alaska gas could conceivably serve to reduce North American greenhouse gas emissions by displacing the use of coal and oil, whereas Mackenzie gas used to produce tar sands oil would result in large increases in Canada's greenhouse gas emissions'.11

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