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The Northern Corridor: Connecting communities or environmental misstep?

A new report proposes a pathway that would allow roads, rail, pipelines, power and communications to stretch across Canada’s Arctic, linking global trade routes. Arctic Deeply’s Hannah Hoag spoke with one of the report’s authors about the project and how it would impact northern communities.

By: /
1 June, 2016
A large iceberg is seen on the edge of a morning fog over Frobisher Bay, Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic August 21, 2009. REUTERS/Andy Clark
Hannah Hoag
By: Hannah Hoag

Managing editor, Arctic Deeply

A corridor running for 7,000km (4,375 miles) through northern Canada could link communities, trade and natural resources with markets in the south and overseas, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

The report calls for the creation of a right-of-way – a route agreed in advance by stakeholders, including governments, private landowners and indigenous groups. Taking this approach, instead of evaluating and approving infrastructure projects on a piecemeal basis, would be more efficient and less costly, the authors argue.

Under the proposal, pipelines, railways, roads and electrical transmission lines would stretch from sea-to-sea-to-sea, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic with the Beaufort Sea, Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence Seaway. The path, which could be up to 2km wide, would connect existing deepwater port facilities with proposed mines in the so-called Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, natural gas facilities in the Mackenzie River delta in the Northwest Territories and northern communities.

The report also proposes a three-year, peer-reviewed, academically led study to evaluate the proposed corridor’s engineering challenges and financing and governance issues, as well as the environmental and socioeconomic impacts.

Arctic Deeply spoke with Kent Fellows, a research associate at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and one of the report’s authors.

Would the corridor mainly serve industry?

The first thing is to get the corridor in place so that you have the potential for private investment. But there is also the potential to dramatically increase the quality of life in northern and near-northern communities. A parliamentary study from 2008 (using 2006 data) found that it is 28 percent more expensive to live outside the areas serviced by the current transportation grid. You have an issue with quality of life, but it also creates a problem for industry. Why would you move up there when you’ve got to pay more for the labour? If we can improve infrastructure in these regions, through road and rail, then you can reduce those costs, allow for much better economic and, more importantly, much better social development in northern and near-northern communities.

In terms of the scale and the rough cost, does it compare to anything else in Canada that’s already been done?

We have had large-scale infrastructure projects in Canada, but really nothing in the modern era. If you go back to the late 1800s, there is the construction of the Canadian Pacific main line; it opened up the west, put infrastructure in place and development followed. Then the Trans-Canada Highway followed that. The other one is the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal that connects Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. These are big transportation programs and they were expensive, but have very long-term potential for earning a return in the form of economic development. The preliminary number we came up with for the Northern Corridor is C$100 billion, but we won’t really know without more work.

How would it benefit the Canadian north? What about the Arctic specifically?

The prospect for travel through the Northwest Passage is probably still a little way off, but I’ll start there. Any time you have got waterway travel you need land-based support in the regions for refueling; if you run into problems you need outposts from which you can do search and rescue, all that kind of stuff. By moving some of this infrastructure a little bit further north, you get closer to these other paths that may soon open.

In terms of the development goals, there is the potential to lower the high costs in those regions. Related to this is that trade has to go both ways. We talk a lot about oil and gas and other resources to tidewater. That is all true, but for Canada to really capitalize on growing trade patterns, we need to be able to get imports into these regions as well. Any time that you are improving infrastructure, you are going to lower those trade costs and then you let different communities in the north and near-north take advantage of these gains from trade. That just makes life better for everyone.

Similar ideas have been floated before; why take a look at it again now?

There are a couple of reasons. The pipeline debate has really put all kinds of Canadian exports into sharp relief and given us a reason and a real catalyst to take a second look. We know what the past 100 years looked like. What do we want the next 100 years to look like? We have problems with exporting oil and gas and there may be issues with other exports on the horizon. Historically, the U.S. has been our major trading partner. It looks like it is poised to stay our major trading partner for a while, but the growth prospects for trade with the U.S. do not look as good as those to the east and west coasts. Asia Pacific is a massively growing market; they need resources, we have resources. The next 100 years of trade is really going to be focused more on the west-east and east-west in terms of where we can actually grow.

The U.S. has been the major consumer of oil and gas, but it is also turning into one of our major competitors. The more diversity we can get in these markets, the better off we are when we are faced with idiosyncratic shocks – if the U.S. decides it wants to buy less or if it puts increased import tariffs on goods. If that starts to happen, our economic prospects are going to be a lot better if we have more diversified access.

Environmental and climate change policies are seeking to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. If you’re looking at the next 100 years, and oil and gas transport is the corridor’s primary purpose, can it still be viable?

We talk a lot about pipelines because that is the current debate, but we should also stress modes like roads and rail, or other modes that we may not have thought of. The growth belt of North America is moving farther north with climate change. That means we have a lot of Canadian regions that are going to become far more productive in terms of agriculture and food production. This is not just another way to get pipelines in the ground. Pipelines could be a portion of this, but not necessarily. Having a corridor in place allows us to build in a mode-agnostic way.

With climate change, we are trying to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and get greenhouse gas emissions down, but we are going to be producing other things. Northern Canada has a lot of potential in different areas. Mineral exports are a big one. If we have increased renewables generation, things like solar power or wind, and if we are talking about battery storage, mineral wealth is going to become really important.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It first appeared on Arctic Deeply. 

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