As intervenors lined up for the forthcoming environmental review of the Mackenzie Gas Project, Canadian federal and territorial government leaders encouraged the industry by taking on roles as development enablers.

The C$7 billion (US$5.6 billion) northern production and pipeline project faces 85 intervenors who met the late December deadline for registering to participate fully in an environmental review that will consider social and cultural as well as nature issues. Half are aboriginal, community and conservation groups including some with national memberships and followings reaching well beyond the Canadian Arctic. Informal citizen interventions will also be heard when the review panel of federal, northern and aboriginal representatives visits communities in both the natural gas production area on the Mackenzie Delta and along the pipeline route south of the Mackenzie Valley to Alberta.

Plainly remembering how a regulatory airing of public concerns in the Northwest Territories killed the first version of the Arctic gas project in the 1970s, the federal and northern governments launched a larger political process to cover the biggest issues raised by introducing industry into North America’s development frontier.

Titled Nation Building Framework for a Northern Strategy, the political process includes the national government in Ottawa, the aboriginal-dominated governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and the hybrid regime in the Yukon. The program starts with a “vision,” articulated by Prime Minister Paul Martin and the premiers of the three northern Canadian jurisdictions, that makes a place for industry one of the starting points for the planning exercise. While appearing to state the obvious to southern Canadians, the language is pregnant with meaning in Canada’s vast northern region.

The new regional development strategy’s vision statement declares, “The North is a place where self-reliant individuals live in healthy, viable communities, and where northerners manage their own affairs.” The statement also reassures the population that attention will be paid to a consensus in the region, among aboriginal communities and relative newcomers alike, that the spread of industry must be gradual and careful. “It is a place where northern traditions of respect for the land and the environment are cherished, and actions and decision-making are anchored in the principles of responsible, sustainable development.”

The framework’s stated goals include “advancement of large-scale projects such as pipelines and mines.” Among the shared objectives rated as critical by northern residents, the framework promises “completion of devolution and resource revenue sharing agreements.”

The Yukon already has a deal with Ottawa on resource jurisdiction. A target of next spring is set for an agreement in principle between the federal government and the Northwest Territories, followed by a final deal in 2006.

Canada’s new northern strategy is not just talk. The federal government committed C$120 million (US$96 million) for work to implement initial results of the exercise. Potential developments range from roads and bridges to environmental cleanups of old gold mine sites and spreading currently rudimentary electric power service.

An example of how the co-operative approach will work was announced in the Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife by Northern Development Minister Ethel Blondin Andrew. She made a C$9 million (US$7.2 million) federal commitment to pay half the costs of a five-year effort to complete and start implementing a “protected areas plan” 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). Industry interests are expected to contribute through assistance to the environmental groups. Canadian gas producers – and especially the big ones involved in Arctic projects – are heavy supporters of mainstream conservation organizations.

The protected areas plan is directly linked to the Mackenzie Gas Project. The scheme was developed a year ago as a direct response to the natural gas production and pipeline proposal by representatives of government, community, environmental and industry interests. The federal government describes the environmental program as “timely and effective conservation planning in the Mackenzie Valley ahead of, or concurrently with, pipeline development.”

Among gas industry veterans, the new northern nation-building framework sounds like a response at last to the central finding of the Canada’s 1970s northern pipeline inquiry. The commission successfully called for a 10-year moratorium against industrialization on grounds that while the Mackenzie Delta and Mackenzie Valley environments are big and tough enough to be undamaged by natural gas development, the northern community was not properly prepared. This time around, federal and northern authorities are making it plain the region’s leaders aim to make sure it is ready.

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