In 1976, 25-year-old Steven Kakfwi stood in front of a nationally appointed judge and said no to a billion-dollar pipeline proposal. Aboriginal people of the Northwest Territories wanted land claims settled before any mega-projects were started on their lands, he said. Kakfwis concerns, along with those of hundreds of other rarely heard northern people, were broadcast to the country.
By Judy Aldous
That was the Berger Inquiry; a two-year process that examined the possibility of building a natural gas pipeline to access the up to 60-trillion cubic feet of reserves along the remote and rugged Mackenzie Valley. Judge Thomas Berger agreed with Kakfwi and in 1977, he recommended a 10-year moratorium on the pipeline plan.
Times have changed for Kakfwi and for the north. The former outspoken native leader is now premier of the N.W.T. And now he wants the pipeline in his backyard, carrying northern natural gas, employing his people
“Twenty-five years ago, I was on the front line of people who spoke out against the Arctic pipeline. We took on the Canadian government, we took on industry we went to the U.S. and said sorry but not now. For 25 years, weve worked hard to get our people positioned so that we can benefit from economic development. Now were ready.”
This is the new economic attitude thats spread across the north: its open for business. But its business their way; that means partnerships with aboriginal companies, strict environmental controls and frequently, promises of compensation, employment and training from companies that want to dig up the resources on northern land. This new attitude can mean new wealth for northern people and new headaches for mining and oil and gas companies.
Enter Alaska gas to complicate matters for Kakfwi and this newfound enthusiasm for a natural gas pipeline. American consumers, facing depleting reserves and an almost 70% increase in gas prices over the past year, are anxious to access the huge reserves in Alaskas Prudhoe Bay.
Alaska and Yukon politicians have teamed up to promote a pipeline project that would transport this gas to market, bypassing the N.W.T. altogether. Kakfwi is fighting tenaciously to have the pipeline pass through his territory.
The pipeline debate has pitted the N.W.T. and Yukon governments against each other in a high-profile international squabble over the billions of dollars in construction, employment, and royalties that a pipeline would bring.
What are at stake are the untapped pools of northern natural gas: in Prudhoe Bay, proven reserves total about 35-trillion cubic feet (TCF), with a potential as high as 100 TCF. Some gas is already being produced and then reinjected into the ground because theres no easy way to get it to market.
In the Mackenzie Delta, N.W.T., reserves are estimated as high as 60 TCF.
Two main routes are being considered to bring this gas to market.
The first, and most politically popular, is the Alaska Highway route. It would see a pipeline run from northern Alaska, through the Yukon and into northern B.C., at an estimated cost of $7.5 billion US to build.
Yukon Premier Pat Duncan has latched onto this option as a way to revitalize her territorys struggling economy. With Alaskan senators, the governor, and most recently the White House on board, shes confident shell succeed.
“It made sense 20 years ago. It makes sense today,” says Duncan, referring to a proposal made during the 1980s for a similar pipeline. Because of that early work, many of the approvals for a pipeline along that route are still in place, as is some of the infrastructure.
“We wouldnt be starting all over,” says Duncan.
Despite the poor odds, Kakfwi wont give up.
“Just because the president of the U.S. and Alaska congressmen and governor are all on one side, doesnt deter the fact that Im right. The economics are on my side. Interests of the consumers are on my side.”
Kakfwi is lobbying for the over-the-top proposal. It would see an undersea chunk of pipeline travel from Alaska to the Mackenzie Valley, then south to B.C., picking up N.W.T. gas along the way.