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Study Suggests Mackenzie Project's Environmental Harm Would Be Minimal

Study Suggests Mackenzie Project's Environmental Harm Would Be Minimal

It will take two decades for supply development triggered by the Mackenzie Gas Project to disturb even 4% of the vast Northwest Territories, says a new study that highlights the scale of the frontier about to be opened up by the Canadian foray into Arctic industry.

An environmental coalition, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, commissioned the study in order to sound warnings during forthcoming hearings on the Mackenzie project by a joint review panel representing federal, territorial and aboriginal conservation authorities. But the results prompted other environmental groups, such as the Canadian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, to observe that the project has a relatively small "footprint" and conservation efforts should concentrate on pinpointing sensitive spots for protection.

The Ottawa-based committee, a vigorous intervener in the Mackenzie case, hired Cizek Environmental Services in the territorial capital of Yellowknife to generate disturbance data with the best available forecasting science. The study combines the project's own supply projections by the Calgary geological and engineering consulting house of Gilbert Laustsen Jung Associates and a technique developed by the United Nations Environment Program known as GLOBIO, or the Global Methodology for Mapping Human Impacts on the Biosphere.

To reach and sustain the Mackenzie project's anticipated full capacity of about 1.8 Bcf/d, the study found that the industry will need up to 3,800 kilometers (2,375 miles) of gathering as well as transmission pipelines, 684 wells and 60,600 kilometers (37,875 miles) of seismic surveys by 2027. The GLOBIO models forecast that the activity will affect 49,645 square kilometers (19,163 square miles), primarily near the Beaufort Sea coast and around the Mackenzie Delta, but also in the north-central Mackenzie Valley. That works out to 3.8% of the 1,300,000 square kilometers (501,800 square miles) covered by the Northwest Territories, which is in turn only one of three jurisdictions in the sprawling Canadian North that also includes the Yukon and Nunavut.

Like even the most critical aboriginal communities in the Northwest Territories, the Arctic Resources Committee suggests that the C$7 billion (US$5.6 billion) Mackenzie project is a case of industry requiring control rather than an invasion to be resisted on principle. "We wanted to show people that this project is not simply a case of putting a thin ribbon of steel down the Mackenzie Valley," said committee research director Kevin O'Reilly. "There are many more impacts from this project, and northerners deserve to be shown that, clearly and plainly, as the environmental review of this project is set to begin. We are not telling people what to think; we are just giving them more information to think about."

The mapping suggests, for instance, locations where special precautions could be needed against interfering with migration routes of wildlife such as caribou. Potential precautions are said to include requiring seismic exploration to be conducted with helicopters rather than all-terrain vehicles which require thin but long lines to be cut through woods to reach potential drilling sites.

Such needs and suggestions were anticipated by federal, territorial and industry agencies. Federal Northern Development Minister Ethel Blondin Andrew has announced a C$9 million (US$7.2 million) commitment to cover half the costs of a "protected areas plan." The program is intended to set aside 16 ecological preservation zones in the Northwest Territories over the next five years. Environmental non-government agencies are committed to contribute C$5.4 million (US$4.4 million), while northern authorities are still considering how to top up the total funding to C$18 million (US$14.4 million). The environmental groups are expected to raise funds among Canadian gas producers and pipelines, which are avid supporters of constructive relationships with organizations that are willing to recognize both words in the global environmentalist slogan, "sustainable development."

Findings such as the Arctic Resources Committee study also stand out as reminders of one of the two key conclusions by a 1970s Canadian royal commission on the aborted first version of the Mackenzie project. The commission concluded there were no environmental reasons to prohibit natural gas production and pipeline development in the Northwest Territories. A 10-year moratorium, long since expired, was recommended solely to enable northern aboriginal populations to negotiate land claims and prepare for work in industry.

The National Energy Board, in a ruling put in the mail as the holiday season began, gave a further indication the time-out is over. It refused even to call a paper hearing or written exchange of arguments on the latest resistance effort filed by the Dene Tha' First Nation of northern Alberta and British Columbia. It was the second loss sustained by aboriginal and environmental protesters. The Dene Tha' resistance before the NEB was brushed aside as abruptly as lawsuits launched to halt the environmental panel's work by the Deh Cho in the southern Northwest Territories.

In its most recent ruling the NEB refused the aboriginal petition to assert federal jurisdiction over the southern-most end of the proposed arctic pipeline, which has been the jurisdiction of the Alberta provincial regulators. The NEB said it would dismiss the Dene Tha' motion without any form of oral or written hearings and would release the reasons for the decision in the new year.

Three of five territorial native communities affected by the production plan for the Mackenzie Delta and pipeline -- the Inuvialuit and Gwich'in on the delta, and the Sahtu in the central valley -- support the project and own shares in it as members of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group.

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