As the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipeline construction projects have encountered repeated setbacks thanks to aggressive indigenous and environmental campaigns and repeated assertions that opening up the Alberta tar sands would mean "game over" for the climate, Canadian officials are reportedly considering an alternative pipeline route.
Alberta energy minister Ken Hughes announced Friday that the Canadian government is "mulling" the idea of building a line north to an Arctic port.
According to Reuters, Hughes has been in talks with the government of Canada's Northwest Territories about transporting the tar sands via pipeline up the Mackenzie River Valley to a proposed deep-water port at Tuktoyaktuk or Inuvik on the Beaufort Sea, a section of the Arctic Ocean.
CBC reported earlier this week that the Calgary consulting firm Canatec Associates International Ltd. has been hired by the province to study the feasibility of such a project, the results of which are expected by the end of the year.
In addition to the enormous risk posed by building such a pipeline over pristine tundra and the environmental impact that the heated pipeline will have on the permafrost landscape, there are additional technical challenges that would increase the likelihood of a rupture in the line.
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On the technical difficulties of building an above-ground pipeline in an Arctic climate, industry publication Pipelines International writes:
[I]f a pipeline is hot and heat is conducted from the pipeline into the soil, the frozen soil thaws, and if it has a large ice content it turns into a soft mud that can carry hardly any load and lets a pipeline sink. The amount of ice in frozen soil varies enormously, even over quite short horizontal distances, and therefore the amount of sinking varies. A pipeline might become severely bent, and in extreme cases might buckle.
Another possibility Hughes mentioned would be ship oil by rail to the Valdez oil terminal in Alaska, Reuters reports.
Whatever the route, the Canadian government can expect similar opposition to the project.
As energy analyst Doug Matthews told CBC, "Many of the communities in that area are currently downstream from the [oil] developments in Fort McMurray and are feeling that there are negative impacts on their communities, on their air, on their fish. They might not be terribly supportive of 500,000 barrels of bitumen flowing past."