Choosing a route for the gas pipeline

North America is likely to be fueled by Arctic natural gas in the decades ahead, as untapped reserves are developed in the Mackenzie Delta of Canada's Northwest Territories and on the North Slope of Alaska.

But it's still unclear how the estimated 100 trillion cubic feet of Arctic gas will make it south to the US. There are two proposed pipelines, one that traces the Alaska Highway, and one that goes under the Beaufort Sea and south through the Mackenzie Valley (see map).

Either way, the proposed pipeline would stretch over more than 1,300 miles - which is longer than the original Great Wall of China. The amount of steel required would be the equivalent of Japan's entire steel production for two years.

The Alaska Highway route would be 300 miles longer than going "over the top," but since certain permits along that route were granted in the 1970s (and later abandoned), the southern route is seen by some as having an edge.

At present, gas prices are about twice the level required to justify the cost of building a pipeline in the Arctic.

Two task forces are studying possible routes. In Alaska, the North American Natural Gas Pipeline Group is studying both the Alaska Highway option and the "over the top" route, and expects to present a routing application to regulators in Canada and the US late this year or early next year.

"We're doing a clean-sheet, stand-alone analysis" of both routes, says Curtis Thayer, a spokesman for the Alaska-based group. "We're going on the assumption that those [earlier] approvals will not stand up."

Their study is also considering technical issues. While the over-the-top route is shorter, the additional cost of building an offshore pipeline could offset the savings.

Inevitably, parties on both of the proposed routes are vying over the ultimate decision. People here in Yellowknife worry that, if the pipeline goes through Alaska, their vast gas fields will be stranded. On April 19, the Alaska legislature passed a measure that would bar granting right-of-way to the offshore pipeline leading to the Northwest Territories.

Mr. Thayer is undeterred. "Our position is that it's too early for that. We can't preclude any option."

In Canada, the Mackenzie Delta producers' group is doing a feasibility study for a pipeline to take just Mackenzie Delta gas south. Spokesman Hart Searle of Imperial Oil in Calgary, Alberta, calls his group's study "as much a political discussion as it is a technical discussion."

The issue is how to structure a deal to include native groups, through whose lands the line would run, as equity partners.

New technologies are expected to give eventual pipelines here a smaller footprint, too.

"We're talking about a chilled, buried pipeline, with the gas kept just above freezing, so that there's less damage to the permafrost," says Curtis Thayer, spokesman for the North American Natural Gas Pipeline Group in Anchorage, Alaska. Mr. Thayer says the new pipeline will have fewer compression stations along the way - and that means less environmental impact.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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