Chris Windeyer

Corridor to Nothing New: Premier’s Speech Boils Down to More Studies

The Premier’s transportation corridor speech offered nothing but further studies, and a worrisome fixation on oil sands

EDGEYK | Opinion

The other night in Ottawa, Premier Bob McLeod announced the GNWT would study “the idea of an energy, communications and transportation corridor along the Mackenzie Valley to the Arctic Ocean.” This is the latest tack in the premier’s quest to turn the NWT into a shipping hub for Alberta oil and, the hope is, the territory’s own moribund petroleum industry.

Studies for all!

“What we are proposing to do is a thorough review of the issues, opportunities and challenges that might be associated with developing a corridor along the Mackenzie Valley,” McLeod told a presumably rapt audience at the North Star Gala. In other words, the government apparently plans to redo the myriad studies that already abound. None of the projects mentioned by McLeod is new. Whole bookshelves have collapsed under the weight of accumulated Northern infrastructure studies.

Parse the premier’s speech a little closer and you’ll find a number of interesting things. First, there are the cornball rhetorical flourishes: “You might think we’d be satisfied with that kind of success [devolution], but we’re really just getting started.”

The premier seems to reserve the corridor concept for the Mackenzie Valley only. The fibre optic line is already under construction. So what McLeod is talking about is figuring out how much it would cost to build a road and a pipeline to ship Alberta bitumen to the Arctic coast. Presumably a port, most likely in Tuktoyaktuk, would accompany that. All of these are ideas already on the drawing board. But wait, the government will study them… at the same time! This is what passes for vision from government these days, apparently.

McLeod refers to the various proposals to build an all-weather road to the Slave Geological Province, something the mining industry has been begging for for decades. That’s not part of the corridor though. As climate change accelerates, the Tibbit to Contwoyto Winter Road is going to face the risk of shorter operating seasons. There’s a strong case that an all-weather replacement ought to be a priority.

Oil sand handcuffs

There is no question the NWT (and the North in general) needs more infrastructure. McLeod says he wants to “talk about how we can build a vibrant, diversified, sustainable economy that is investment-friendly, environmentally responsible and respectful of Aboriginal rights.” That sounds like a worthy goal. Why then is the only broad economic development proposal issuing from the GNWT a multi-billion dollar scheme that would hitch the NWT to the highly-polluting and globally-unpopular oil sands?

What’s further troubling is that nobody had a chance to vote for this vision. Thanks to what is laughably and dishonestly called consensus government, we just sort of woke up one day to find out this is what the government’s decided to hang its hat on for economic development. (It’s also telling that every great pronouncement regarding this project has been made outside the territory.)

A Conservative misread

I think the government’s current strategy also grossly misreads the current situation in Ottawa. The drop of oil prices is hammering the federal bottom line right now and it’s highly unlikely you’ll see anything but austerity from the Conservatives as they try to balance the budget this spring. McLeod ought to know this, since he was at the premiers’ meeting last week when federal finance minister Joe Oliver told them their request for more infrastructure spending was stupid.

Devolution certainly brings the GNWT some financial wherewithal to pursue infrastructure projects. And if, as the premier suggests, a decision is “imminent” on a $1-billion increase to the NWT’s debt cap, the territorial government will have further room to maneuver.

Is it the government’s intention to sink all of this money into a Mackenzie Valley corridor? Common sense would seem to dictate no. But the premier has developed what looks like a singular fixation with this Arctic Gateway concept.

“We recognize that there will be a lot of questions about this option,” McLeod told his Ottawa audience this week, “and we intend to answer them.” If that is the case, sir, then the floor is all yours.