Canada’s arctic gas project includes adaptations to future global warming, and the sponsors say more climate change features may be added, but they will not prepare for environmental critics’ worst-case, doomsday climate change scenarios.

At northern pipeline hearings in Inuvik, expert witness panels for the Mackenzie Gas Project have testified that associated gas production sites are engineered to weather an annual average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit). Under intense cross examination by counsel for the Sierra Legal Defense Fund and Environment Canada, senior project partner Imperial Oil’s engineers indicated they will consider effects of a 3-degree C (6-degree F) rise.

On the Mackenzie Delta, the engineers said the worst effects of rising temperatures would be increasingly frequent, bigger and faster flooding of low-lying areas. But the floods are not expected to include invasions by the nearby Beaufort Sea.

Industry has yet to accept the idea that sea levels will rise significantly or that the polar ice cap will melt away. It is widely conceded, even by northern aboriginal and civic leaders who support the project, that climate change already is being felt in arctic Canada. Symptoms include shortened winters and reduced useful periods for cold-season public works such as ice roads. But with winter temperatures still hovering for months in a range of -30 degrees C to -40 degrees C (-20 degrees F to -40 degrees F) on the Delta, it remains hard to see how changes of only a handful of degrees will be enough to transform the region.

The extra water from Delta flooding is forecast to come from a combination of increased snowfall and accelerated spring thaws. On the Delta, melt water stays on the surface as a vast array of ponds and small lakes. Little water ever flows off the flat surface. Virtually none of the water soaks into the ground because it is permanently frozen at a shallow depth. Known as permafrost, the hard layer prevents drainage.

Whether global warming will significantly affect the permafrost, and what engineering modifications will be required, remain hotly contested topics. Evidence presented to the National Energy Board by Imperial Oil includes technical studies of pipelines in permafrost. The papers were turned over to show details of the project’s climate change plans, but the board agreed to keep the material confidential as competitive information in the field of cold-climate engineering and construction.

The Canadian arm of the Sierra Club and a host of environmental interests, such as the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, are after much bigger game than project engineering details. A national campaign called Mackenzie Wild, led by the Sierra Club of Canada, calls on national, territorial and native agencies to stop the C$7-billion (US$6-billion) natural gas project entirely. Rather than hazards posed by snow melting or rises in the sea level, the campaign centers on overall effects of Canadian energy development. The environmentalists describe the industry and sympathetic governments as employing the Mackenzie project as just one element in a “brown-tinted” future for Canada.

The gas development is just a tool of the larger conversion of the Canadian industry into a rapidly growing manufacturer of synthetic crude oil from the Alberta oilsands, the environmental critics say.

They point to forecasts by industry and government authorities, including TransCanada PipeLines and the NEB, that bitumen extraction and upgrading projects now under way will triple oilsands plant gas use to 1.8 Bcf/d. The critics suggest it is no coincidence that the forecast figure is also the maximum capacity that the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline is being built to reach with future additions of compressor power. It is also held to be no accident that the Mackenzie project’s sponsors, Imperial, Shell Canada, ConocoPhillips Canada and ExxonMobil Canada, are also major participants in the oilsands development wave.

It all adds up to a “Mackenzie-gas-for-Alberta-tar scheme,” the Mackenzie Wild campaign says. The environmentalists say if the northern project proceeds the consequences will include vast increases in greenhouse gas emissions by accelerating oilsands production and worsening climate change. That long-range disaster will be the larger result of “transformation of the Mackenzie Valley from largely intact wilderness to industrial landscape” at the expense of grizzly bears, caribou, wolves and vast bogs and wetlands that nourish other creatures including celebrated northern annual crops of mosquitoes and flies, the environmentalists say.

The conservationist campaign is studded with sometimes highly technical consultant reports as supporting evidence, plus procedural motions periodically calling public attention to the resistance effort.

In more than a year of preliminary exchanges of documents, and so far in the hearings, the environmental resistance has had little effect except to add time and volume to the proceedings and evidence. To date, the NEB and the review panel have focused on immediate environmental effects of the proposed production and pipeline facilities, leaving the global warming debate as largely a political matter for the territorial and federal governments.

Project witnesses are standing by a line adopted during six years of preliminaries to the scheduled year of hearings. There is no direct connection between the Mackenzie project and oilsands developments, the NEB and the environmental panel are being told. The northern pipeline sponsors say the oilsands projects will go ahead to the degree they are economically justifiable, with their builders deciding whether gas prices look likely to become high enough to call the bitumen development programs into question.

Even at US$10/MMBtu, gas has not proven to be too costly for oilsands plants, due both to high oil prices and large “differentials” in the value of raw bitumen and upgraded synthetic crude output. The differentials alone are three or more times greater than the cost of gas burned in heat processes used to make the upgraded synthetic oil.

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