The Mayor of Norman Wells is concerned that if work on Enbridge's Line 21 pipeline does not get underway soon, the oil fields near the town may not return to production.
The pipeline, which connects oil fields in Norman Wells to Zama, Alberta, was shut down months ago, and work to repair the pipeline has yet to be approved. The line was shut down last November due to concerns about ground instability at a section of the line near Fort Simpson.
Construction was expected to have been underway by June.
- Enbridge shuts down Norman Wells pipeline, citing 'stability concerns' along riverbank
The approximately $53 million project would require drilling horizontally for 2.5 km under the Mackenzie River approximately 9 km east of Fort Simpson, according to documents filed with the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board.
"It is essentially a repair, and so stakeholders and interested parties are of the opinion that this could be approved much quicker than something that was new," said mayor Nathan Watson.
"That's what we're all hoping for."
For its part, a statement from N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod states the Government of the Northwest Territories views the project as a "maintenance effort" that would not normally trigger and environmental review.
Liidlii Kue First Nation opposed
But Liidlii Kue First Nation Chief Gerry Antoine is reading from a different play book. He wants to see a full environmental review of the proposal.
"It's not merely a replacement," Antoine said.
"It's a new project using new methods, and it poses significant risks to the water, the environment, and our rights."
The Mackenzie River is the water source for the town, Antoine said, adding that the First Nation's concerns were not adequately considered when the project was initially conceived.
In documents submitted to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board last week, the First Nation requested the project be referred to the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board for full environmental assessment.
Norman Wells at a standstill
After the discovery of instability along the pipeline route and the line's closure, oil production in Norman Wells at Imperial Oil owned facilities quickly slowed to a standstill. Then on Jan. 26, Imperial Oil announced it would cease production and move its Norman Wells operations into a 'care and maintenance' mode.
The Norman Wells oil field, which has had declining production for years, has "five or six" years left in it, according to Watson. He is concerned that delays in reopening the line could cost Imperial Oil too much to make it worth the company's time to restart production.
When Imperial Oil announced it was ceasing production, the company did not say it would necessarily restart should the pipeline be repaired.
"If the regulatory process drags out, and that window gets smaller and smaller between years of production left and cost of repairs and all the other economic factors…they will have to make a decision on whether or not it's worth it to go through all that process and spend that money," says Watson, who added that neither Imperial Oil nor Enbridge have shared much information in that regard with the town.
The work was supposed to be underway starting in June, and completed by the fall, but Watson says meeting that deadline appears unlikely.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Enbridge said that the company "continues to engage with stakeholders on this project, including Indigenous communities.
"This is an integrity and safety-driven project to resume operation of an existing pipeline that has been in place since 1985," the statement reads.
A spokesperson for Imperial Oil would not comment on the ongoing regulatory process or its consequences.