WINNIPEG – There’s renewed talk of transporting western oil through the northern Manitoba port in Churchill, but any such project is likely to run into opposition from environmentalists and some people who live there.
Using the sub-Arctic port on the western shore of Hudson Bay as a route for Prairie oil has been floated before. But it has been condemned largely due to the area’s fragile ecosystem and Churchill’s reputation for eco-tourism.
“It’s a terrible idea to even consider shipping crude oil through Hudson Bay,” Eric Reder, Manitoba director for the Wilderness Committee, said in an interview this week.
Pundits and politicians have pushed for a pipeline to Churchill as a way to get oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan onto ocean tankers bound for international markets. It has also been touted by some who back western separatism.
The idea was brought up again this week in Saskatchewan, where the government has formed a committee to examine ways to get more pipelines built. The Saskatchewan Party also has a 10-year economic plan that includes “supporting efforts to export oil by tanker through the Port of Churchill.”
Premier Scott Moe said Wednesday the idea of a pipeline to Churchill is worth exploring, especially since the rail line in the region was reopened in 2018 after its owner sold it to a coalition that includes area First Nations.
“The rail line is a lifeline for those communities, quite frankly, and what is keeping that open is exports. So the conversation with respect to the potential of shipping some of our energy products out of a northern or an Arctic port is a fair conversation for us to have,” Moe said in Regina.
For Reder and other opponents, a main concern is the boggy tundra and muskeg in northern Manitoba. The ground frequently heaves and shifts, and has historically caused delays and disruptions in rail service.
“The pipeline would go through enormous stresses,” Reder said.
Manitoba’s former NDP government spoke out in 2013 against a plan to ship crude oil by rail through the region, because of the possible environmental impacts of a spill.
In Churchill, a town of 900 known as the “polar bear capital of the world,” feelings are mixed, said Dave Daley, president of the chamber of commerce.
He said there would be big economic benefits to shipping oil through the port, which used to routinely handle bulk fuel supplies destined for communities in the Arctic. But any proponent of a new crude shipment plan would have work to do.
“We have polar bears and beluga whales and pristine country, tundra … river systems,” Daley said.
“You’d have to really have a sound plan and you’d have to come to Manitoba, to Churchill, and prove to everybody that this can be done safely.”
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 26 northern First Nations communities, declined to comment. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said any project would need Indigenous involvement from the start.
“First Nations in Manitoba must be involved, consulted and engaged in the process in a manner that respects their rights and interests,” Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said in a written statement.
— With files from Stephanie Taylor in Regina