CALGARY - A panel weighing the potential impact of a proposed natural gas pipeline on Arctic ecosystems and communities is about to reveal its long-awaited findings.
The federally appointed Joint Review Panel is set to publish its report on the Mackenzie Gas Project online Wednesday afternoon - years behind schedule.
The more than 1,200-kilometre, $16.2-billion pipeline would traverse pristine permafrost in the Northwest Territories as it carries natural gas from fields near the Beaufort Sea coast south to the Alberta boundary.
Companies backing the project have been frustrated by the slow pace of the regulatory process. When the panel began its work in August 2004, the review was expected to wrap up within 10 months.
Some communities along the route have been waiting anxiously to see some of the development's economic benefits.
"There's absolutely nothing going on in the oil and gas side up in the Mackenzie Valley," Bob McLeod, the Northwest Territories cabinet minister who oversees energy development, said in a recent interview.
"A lot of businesses are just holding on, and I expect that if the pipeline doesn't go ahead it will be very difficult for them to continue on."
Stephen Hazell with the environmental group Sierra Club of Canada said the panel has good reason to take its time, given the project's major ecological implications.
"This is the largest project ever in the history of the North and it will completely transform the northern economy," he said.
"I suspect the panel is going to say some interesting - probably some controversial - things that I think a lot of people are not going to be ready for."
The National Energy Board, a federal regulator, is set to begin its hearings in April, and will incorporate the Joint Review Panel's recommendations into its final decision on whether the project can go ahead.
The pipeline, according to its most recent March 2007 estimate, is expected to cost $16.2 billion, more than double its 2004 price tag of $7 billion.
Imperial Oil Ltd. (TSX:IMO) is the lead partner in the Mackenzie project, which also includes Imperial's U.S. parent, ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM), ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) and Royal Dutch Shell PLC (NYSE:RDS).
The Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which acts on behalf of communities along the pipeline's route, also has an ownership stake in the pipeline.
Natural gas shipper TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP) would feed the Mackenzie gas into its Alberta pipeline network, and participates in the project through its investment in the APG.
In a recent interview, TransCanada chief executive Hal Kvisle said there is still a need for the Mackenzie pipeline, despite burgeoning supplies from shale gas reservoirs to the south that are cheaper to develop and closer to market.
"We continue to think this is a very good project that will open up a new basin, that will enable the Canadian upstream industry to continue finding and developing new gas in new parts of the country and that will have very significant benefits for the aboriginal communities all up and down the Mackenzie Valley," he said in an interview last week.