Canada’s northern gas project has quietly dropped its target of this summer for filing completed construction applications, saying the process has become too complicated to rush.

When pressed, Mackenzie Gas Project spokesman Hart Searle said no target is being set any longer as summer goes by with no regulatory package in sight.

Searle emphasized there is no one stumbling block, such as a 70-page final manual of requirements for the C$5 billion (US$3.8 billion) production and pipeline project’s environmental impact assessment, handed down earlier this month by federal, aboriginal and Northwest Territories authorities (see Daily GPI, Aug. 20). Sponsors initially celebrated the fact that the environmental review does not include the impact of the potential gas use by oilsands projects, but there will be an examination of the project in relation to global warming, as prescribed by the Kyoto Protocol.

Searle stressed that putting the application together requires agreement among multiple participants on documents thousands of pages long, dealing with highly sensitive community as well as industrial issues. The group includes the territorial Aboriginal Pipeline Group as well as Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil Canada.

The group can count on every word being analyzed by a long line-up of potential critics, ranging from TransCanada PipeLines and would-be shippers among exploration companies operating outside the Mackenzie sponsor group, to environmental and aboriginal groups with lawyers and experts on staff.

Northern groups without staff professionals will get help by hiring some on contract. For just one aspect of the environmental impact assessment, technical conferences on its adequacy, C$380,000 (US$285,000) is being made available to interveners by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board.

Issues range from cold-climate engineering matters such as installing relatively warm equipment in permafrost to “cultural” items like effects on traditional lifestyles and ancient burial grounds.

The entire package deals with too many sensitive topics in the Canadian north to let any piece go by without thorough consideration, Searle said. “We want to make sure we’ve got it right,” he emphasized as the target date was set aside. While the project sponsors singled out no one factor causing second thoughts, the environmental assessment’s terms of reference highlighted the proliferating complexities of pulling together an acceptable regulatory package.

Among the tall orders is one that makes weather forecasting look simple. The project won a battle against demands by environmentalists for an assessment of emissions by eventual industrial users of northern gas, especially Alberta oilsands projects. But the Mackenzie sponsor group has been directed to predict long-range effects of greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change on Arctic temperatures, natural features and its proposed facilities.

Getting the application right includes taking into account the science of global warming that Canada officially accepted by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas control, says the order book for the environmental review.

“Describe how any changes to the climate could affect the project over its lifespan,” the document says.

A long-range outlook covering 30 years or more after construction is completed in 2009-10 is required. “For certain portions of the project area it may be necessary to identify potential changes in water levels and storm surges, fire, permafrost conditions and changes to other landscape and waterscape processes that could occur because of climate change,” the assessment rules say.

Global warming is a “critical engineering issue” for the Arctic gas project, said conservationist Elizabeth May, who led efforts by the Sierra Club of Canada to have the topic inserted into requirements for the environmental review.

“The Mackenzie Valley is the place on the planet where the rate of warming is the fastest,” May said. Environmentalists believe climate change will be greatest on the Mackenzie Delta, where the gas project includes a C$2 billion (US$1.5 billion) network of wells, field pipelines and processing facilities including byproduct liquids extraction.

But climate change scientists also predict a range of warming effects along the 1,220-kilometre route of the proposed C$3 billion (US$2.25 billion) Mackenzie Valley Pipeline from the delta to northwestern Alberta. In addition to identifying installations most likely to be affected, the project is required to show how its design, construction, operations and eventual abandonment and reclamation plans are adapted to global warming.

The northern gas consortium will also still be questioned by public intervenors in the case about whether it has relationships to Alberta oilsands projects that increase Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, said May and Kevin O’Reilly, Yellowknife research director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Arctic Resources Committee. It is well known that some and possibly all the new Arctic gas supplies will be burned as fuel for heat processes used by Alberta’s growing oilsands complexes, May and O’Reilly insisted. “We’re taking a prized low-carbon fuel and using it to produce a high-carbon fuel,” May said.

The Arctic gas project has no direct connection to oilsands developments, Searle said. “Fundamentally we don’t know where the gas would ultimately be used. That is beyond the scope of the environmental impact statement.”

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