What will haul Arctic petroleum and other resources to southern markets? A pipeline network, super-strength icebreaker tankers, submarine freighters, a railroad, dirigibles, or a combination of any of these modes of transportation?
At this time no one seems sure of the answer. A special committee of the Canadian Senate has been grappling with the immense logistics problem posed by ambitious plans to exploit the far north's energy potential.
The committee, headed by Sen. Earl Hastings of Alberta, was actually summoned to examine proposals for northern pipelines and to draw up legislation for construction of such a transmission link - initially for Alaskan natural gas.
But in recent weeks the committee has become a depository for other brave ideas and sudden revelations stemming from the emerging pattern of petroleum discoveries both on shore and at sea.
Economic realities seem to have come into play as well, reducing, for example , a much promoted dual-delivery system of pipelines and tankers to a single cheapest choice. Dome Petroleum Ltd., which has scored several crude oil discoveries in the ice-infested waters of the Beaufort Sea and will need some means of delivery by 1986, has dropped its plan for an overland pipeline through the Mackenzie River valley. Instead, it has opted for tanker-borne traffic - at least until volume is too much to handle in a sealift, perhaps by the end of the decade.
That doesn't mean that the pipeline from the Mackenzie delta - a most controversial proposal in the mid-'70s - either gas, oil, or both - will not be pushed by other operators in the region. Esso-Imperial, Gulf Canada, Shell Canada, and some smaller companies have a stake in discoveries, mainly gas, on land above the Arctic Circle and in the shallow waters of the Beaufort Sea. They may want to go the pipeline route for deliveries.
A 10-year moratorium slapped on the Mackenzie valley by the federal government will continue for approximately five more years to prevent any major industrial development for environmental and sociopolitical reasons.
Few industry experts, federal politicians, or even northern native people would support an extension of the ban.
The Canadian sections of the Alaska highway gas pipeline and a spur to gather Mackenzie delta fuel were to be the harbingers of northern transportation development.
But doubts persist about the viability of the project, which would cost some be completed as proposed.
Canada's north, even in the relatively short period of less than two decades of active exploration, has already become something of a graveyard of broken dreams for transportation proposals.
The Mackenzie valley has been targeted by no fewer than half a dozen promoters, some of the biggest names in the international petroleum business, for various transmission ventures.
All have come to naught.
Yet another pipeline proposal would bring gas from the Arctic islands by hopscotching through the polar archipelago to the mainland and eventually to the Great Lakes region to plug into existing continental distribution networks.
Prototype tankers designed for year-round operations in the icy ocean on the top of the world are now under construction by Dome Petroleum. This week Dome sold a 50 percent interest in this fleet to an affiliate for $200 million (Canadian).
Other designs call for a string of huge submarine oil carriers to run a shuttle service between the far north, Canada's eastern seaboard, and Western Europe.
Predictably, Canada's federally owned railway once put forward a plan to drive a set of rails all the way to the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
Unit trains several miles long were to bring oil or liquefied natural gas down south.
The use of giant helium-filled airships, though not actively pursued now, is still being discussed with utmost seriousness among transportation pioneers.
A British-built dirigible may be flown to the Canadian north to try carrying oilfield equipment of up to 10 tons between remote locations next winter.
Airborne dirigible-unit ''trains'' with massive lifting capacity, employing space-age navigational and cargo-transfer methods, may be feasible toward the turn of the century, advocates say.
In the meantime, the Canadian Senate committee is expected to legalize pipeline transportation as the initial means of tapping the north's riches.
But tankers of one description or another can't be far behind. And as industry planners here like to put it, more unconventional approachs to the unique demands of logistics in the inhospitable environment of the far north can't be too far off, either.