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Reserves of Canadian Arctic gas remain in the ground decades after their discovery
Winning approval to build TransCanada Corp.’s proposed $12-billion Energy East pipeline to move oil from Athabasca to the Atlantic could be the easiest part. Consider the four-decade history of government-approved plans of TransCanada and others to pipeline gas from the Arctic.
They were launched by the 1968 discovery of North America’s largest accumulations of both crude oil and natural gas. Most of the oil at the Prudhoe Bay field on Alaska’s northern Arctic coastal plain has now been produced, but Prudhoe Bay’s recoverable natural gas — equal to a third of all the known remaining recoverable gas in hundreds of fields in western Canada — remains frozen in place. So, too, do substantial gas and oil reserves in the Mackenzie River delta and Beaufort Sea, 600 kilometres east of Prudhoe Bay.
One year after the Prudhoe Bay discovery, TransCanada and two U.S. midwestern gas utilities began feasibility studies for a pipeline to move the Prudhoe Bay and Mackenzie delta gas to consumers across Canada and the United States.
They were soon joined by some of the world’s biggest oil companies, by U.S. long-distance gas pipelines, and by regional gas utilities, including Consumers Gas Company of Toronto (since acquired by Enbridge) and Union Gas of Chatham.
The 1973 oil crisis brought a sense of urgency for a pipeline to tap the Arctic gas. The oil members of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) slashed oil production from the world’s major supply sources and embargoed sales to the United States and the Netherlands. This pushed up oil and related energy prices more than five-fold in three years, caused mile-long lineups for gasoline at U.S. services stations, cut U.S. highway speed limits to 50 miles per hour and threatened shortages in Canada.
In the House of Commons, prime minister Pierre Trudeau endorsed construction of a pipeline to move the Prudhoe Bay and Mackenzie delta gas. “It is in the public interest to facilitate early construction by every means that does not lower environmental standards or ignore or neglect rights of native peoples,” Trudeau declared in announcing the still controversial National Energy Program.
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