OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially broke ground Wednesday on the first all-season highway to Canada’s Arctic coast, which promises to open up resource development in the far north.
The $185 million extension of the Dempster Highway is to connect Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet on the Arctic coast currently accessible only by winter ice road, barge or air.
At latitude 70 degrees north, above the Arctic Circle, Tuktoyaktuk (or colloquially, Tuk) will become the farthest point on the North American continent connected by land once construction is done in 2018.
It would also become a crucial disembarkation point for oil exploration in the Beaufort Sea.
The highway “will, for the first time by road, connect and unify Canada from sea to sea to sea,” Harper said in a statement.
The federal government added: “The highway also provides the means to exercise Canadian sovereignty by establishing a permanent transportation link to the Arctic coast, and facilitating and reducing the costs associated with security-related operations in the Arctic.”
Initial work has already started on the gravel two-lane 137-km road, which is to be built atop permafrost and muskeg — acidic soil — at an estimated cost of more than 200 million Canadian dollars ($185 million).
Sitting atop a gravel berm up to 2.4 meters thick will insulate the permafrost in the soil underneath. Without this pad, the permafrost would melt and the road would sink into the ground.
Completion of the highway will mark the end of a decades-long push to encourage development in the north that started when another Canadian Tory prime minister, John Diefenbaker, set in motion construction of the Dempster Highway connecting the Yukon’s Klondike Highway to Inuvik in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The latest 2010 draft of the plan to extend it says the so-called Road to Resources would boost tourism and resource exploration in the region.
Several energy firms are already seeking regulatory approval to start drilling for oil in the nearby Beaufort Sea, starting in 2020.
A study prepared for the regional government of the Northwest Territories suggested the new link could also kick-start stalled gas projects in the MacKenzie Delta, and construction of a CA$16 billion pipeline to Alberta province directly to the south.
The 1,200-km MacKenzie Valley pipeline connecting northern gas fields to North American markets was shelved due to burgeoning construction costs and low natural-gas prices.
It was last proposed to move up to 34 million cu. meters of natural gas per day.
The Arctic is believed to hold 90 billion barrels of oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas resources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Canada and the United States, however, are at odds over the sea boundary between Alaska and the Northwest Territories, with resource royalties and environmental stewardship at stake.
In addition to an estimated 2,000 jobs that are expected to be created to build the road to Tuktoyaktuk, locals are reportedly also eager to save on food and materials shipped north.
One estimate cited by officials suggested road access would reduce by as much as CA$1,500 per person annually the cost of shipping to northern frontier communities that currently rely on seasonal ice roads or air transportation for groceries and other goods.
Tuktoyaktuk’s 950 residents pay on average double what Canadians living in the south of the country pay for food.