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TUKTOYAKTUK, NWT — On a November morning just outside Tuktoyaktuk, diesel engines break the silence as trucks and graders trundle back and forth, slowly pushing their way across the tundra toward Inuvik, about 140 kilometres south.
With the sun barely rising above the horizon on the northernmost reaches of Canada’s mainland, the crew is constructing a winding road that will provide the first year-round link between the Arctic Ocean and the rest of the country. It is a remarkable piece of engineering that is like laying a thick carpet across a giant frozen sponge.
The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk gravel highway, a dream that goes back to the 1950s, will take about three years to complete, with most of the work being done in the long, bone-chilling winter. Northern residents, governments and aboriginal leaders are looking to it as a path to a brighter economic future following decades of high hopes and bitter disappointments.
Those have included an energy exploration boom in the 1970s, which ended when oil prices tumbled in the following decade, and on-again, off-again plans for a multibillion-dollar Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline. They appear to be off again. The $300-million road project, which will employ about 250 people at its peak, is smaller in scale than either of those and the people of the North are counting on short and long-term benefits.
“What this road means to this region is a whole new opportunity,” said Merven Gruben, mayor of the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, home to about 900 people on the Beaufort Sea coast.
“We know it’s going to be a road to resources for industry, but it’s also a road for us to travel any time we want to go for holidays – just drive out. But the big picture, I think, is the cost of living going down for our people. Everybody’s going to be affected by that. In the stores everything’s so expensive right now because you have to fly everything in,” Mr. Gruben said in his office above the town council chamber.
Indeed, everything is costly in the place locals call Tuk, a collection of modest wood homes with few stores and no restaurants or hotels – a two-litre carton of milk runs about $9 and gasoline is $1.85 per litre. Travel between Inuvik, a regional government and supply centre, and Tuk is restricted to air in the summer and ice road in the winter, making it tough and often pricey for residents, tourists and industry to move back and forth.
There are still remnants of the last oil boom in Tuk, including worker housing built for Beaufort Sea drilling operations by Dome Petroleum and other firms. They have been taken over by local companies, including the one owned by Mr. Gruben’s family that is in charge of building the highway.
Construction is just getting under way on the Inuvik side, on a stretch of the town’s Navy Road, which until recently was lined with drilling rigs and other heavy equipment stored in anticipation of a new energy rush fueled by the Mackenzie gas project. Depressed natural gas prices and ample supplies closer to major markets have prompted lead partner Imperial Oil Ltd. to put that on hold.
This fall, Imperial began the regulatory process for a potential drilling program on its acreage in the Beaufort Sea, along with partners Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC. Drilling may not start until the end of the decade, but the all-weather road will be a boon when operations start.
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