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A delicate balance

Continued from Page 1

The National Energy Board begins public hearings today, with 62 dates planned through the year, primarily to assess the technical and economic merit of the pipeline proposal.

But the more emotionally significant meetings start in February, also in Inuvik, led by a joint review panel formed by the federal government and northern first nations' regulators in 2004 to examine the impact of the project on the environment and the region's people. The panel has 75 meetings planned, visiting the most distant communities.

Robert Hornal, a long-time consultant and federal civil servant in the North, chairs the seven-member group. Like Justice Thomas Berger in the 1970s, Mr. Hornal's panel will visit tiny places like Colville Lake, home to 135 north of the Arctic Circle, and Trout Lake, home to 80 in the southern NWT.

"In some places, my team may outnumber the residents of the community and that sort of scares me," Mr. Hornal says. "I hope it doesn't overwhelm them but I suspect they'll still want to talk to us."

Everything about the project threatens to overwhelm the region. About 12,000 construction workers will come here to build the line in the winters of 2009 and 2010, more than a quarter of the territories' populace and most will come from the outside. In just one example, Fort Good Hope, a hilly hamlet of 550, will host a work camp of 1,350, one of four instant towns planned along the construction route.

As year-long public hearings begin, the project's principal backer, Imperial Oil Ltd., isn't sure the effort is actually worth it.

"As you know, the Mackenzie project is very lean, from an economic standpoint," Randy Broiles, Imperial's senior vice-president leading the project, says in a small boardroom beside his office at company headquarters in Calgary.

The cost of the project has escalated, from $5-billion several years ago to an estimated $7.5-billion.

Mr. Broiles suggests the demands that come out of the regulatory process could be too much. Asked how much is too much, he doesn't give a precise answer -- leaving this whole epic, wrenching process in limbo.

"If you'd asked me that six months ago," Mr. Broiles says, "I would have said $7.5-billion was too much."

The prize

ConocoPhillips Co. controls the onshore Parsons Lake gas field, one of the three that would initially supply the pipeline. Further offshore, Conoco is sitting on 350 million barrels of oil in the Amauligak field. Devon Energy Corp.'s $60-million well drilled this winter out in the shallow frozen waters of the Beaufort Sea testifies to the area's potential. Armed with the first set of advanced 3-D seismic data ever collected in the area, Devon is hunting for a huge field of gas that could rival the giant Taglu field onshore, controlled by Imperial Oil Ltd.

The project

The main pipeline would run 1,200 kilometres down the Mackenzie Valley, connecting three major natural gas fields in the Delta with northern Alberta. The line is a single ribbon of steel, just 30 inches in diameter and buried, the conduit for a massive, Alberta-like oil and gas development.

Impact

Everything about the project threatens to overwhelm the region. About 12,000 construction workers will come here to build the line in the winters of 2009 and 2010, more than a quarter of the territories' populace. Most will come from away. In just one example, Fort Good Hope, a hamlet of 550, will host a work camp of 1,350, one of four instant towns planned along the construction route. The fragility of the Arctic ecosystem is a concern, as are potential societal ills brought by industrialization and its effects on a traditional way of life.

The hearings

The National Energy Board begins public hearings today, with 62 dates planned through the year, primarily to assess the technical and economic merit of Imperial's proposal. But the more emotionally significant meetings start in February, also in Inuvik, led by a joint review panel formed by the federal government and northern first nations' regulators in 2004 to examine the potential impacts of the project on the environment and lives of the people in the project area. The joint panel has 75 meetings planned, visiting the most distant communities.

'All the guys that are good and want to work are frigging working, that's all I can say. There's no shortage of work.'

David Hodgson, above, owner of a contracting business in Norman Wells, NWT

Conversation with. . .

Dave Ebner

Reporter Dave Ebner of The Globe's Calgary bureau answers your questions at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday on the $7.5-billion Mackenzie Valley pipeline project in a real-time, on-line discussion at globeandmail.com

Read the previous two stories in our three-day series on how the native tribes of the Far North both fear and eagerly await the start of construction on globeandmail.com/business.

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