Blocked On All Other Sides, Tar Sands Could Cross The Arctic

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Fish-eye lens view of sea ice off the coast of Spitsbergen (Svalbard Islands) in the High Arctic.

With routes to the east, west, and south currently blocked, tar sands producers are considering shipping oil north, across the Arctic. A new study (PDF) commissioned by the the oil company Canatec and the Canadian province of Alberta says it would be “feasible” to build a 2,400-kilometer “Arctic Gateway Pipeline.” The pipeline would take advantage of the “unprecedented retreat of Arctic sea-ice” caused by climate change to make shipping easier in the Arctic, while also contributing to more climate change by helping spur more tar sands development.

Fort McMurray, Alberta, the center of tar sands production, is landlocked in central Canada and looking to get its oil to the international market. But it’s facing long delays and potential rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport the oil south, significant opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline that would transport oil west, and South Portland, Maine took action in July to block a plan to ship tar sands oil from the East Coast.

arctic gateway pipeline

CREDIT: Canatec

Keith Stewart, a researcher with Greenpeace Canada, said in a phone interview that the Arctic Gateway plans were more of a bargaining chip than a real proposal. It’s more like, “if you don’t let us build the pipeline that’s a bad idea,” he said, “we’ll build a pipeline that’s a really terrible idea.”

Stewart pointed to the fact that the pipeline would be partially constructed on permafrost, which hasn’t been very permanent lately. The remoteness of the Arctic Circle also means “there’s no possible way you could clean up an oil spill in that environment,” Stewart said, and “the Arctic environment is very fragile.”

The proposed pipeline would be far longer than any other possible tar sands pipeline, 2,400 kilometers compared with 1,897 for Keystone XL, which goes all the way down to Texas’ Gulf Coast, and 1,177 for the Northern Gateway.

The proposed route passes through large swaths of First Nations land on its trip north, ending in the small town of Tuktoyaktuk. That doesn’t bode well for the project’s feasibility, considering the disastrous environmental effects First Nations communities have felt from tar sands and the major role those communities have played in opposing new pipelines.

The report details the necessary political maneuvering to convince First Nations communities to accept oil transportation, from pipeline construction to shipping through the Arctic Sea. In Nunavut, the northernmost Canadian province, the report says, “subsistence harvesting occurs in every major waterway in Nunavut and constitutes a major food source (not to mention its cultural importance). Accordingly, opposition to bulk shipments of crude through Nunavut waters can be anticipated both at the community level and through official channels.”

“I suspect they’ll run into the same reaction [from First Nations] as with other proposals,” Stewart said. “You’re putting at risk existing livelihoods for something that doesn’t benefit us.”