Inuvik's 'precarious' fuel situation threatened by proposed cut to winter ferry service

A proposed cut to Dempster Highway winter ferry service has Inuvik's mayor worried about a potential emergency with the town's supply of propane, which heats most of Inuvik's homes.

'It would be a real emergency,' says mayor, if backup gas well were to fail

A backhoe breaks ice for the Louis Cardinal ferry in November 2013. That month the Louis Cardinal ferry was out of service for more than a week and Inuvik's propane storage dwindled to a four-day supply. The town switched to its gas wells for fuel. (NWT Dept. of Transportation)

A proposed cut to Dempster Highway winter ferry service has Inuvik's mayor worried about a potential emergency with the town's fuel supply.

N.W.T.'s draft budget for 2017-2018 proposes slashing the $1.8 million spent annually on keeping the Tsiigehtchic and Fort McPherson ferries running while the ice crossings are under construction.

Shoulder season ferry service started in 2013, when Inuvik became reliant on trucked-in propane to heat most of the town's homes after the local natural gas wells began to run dry. At the time, the Department of Transportation said it didn't have much of a choice but to provide shoulder season ferry service to avoid interrupting Inuvik's supply of propane. 

"The reason they decided to run the ferry during freeze up in the first place was because of that situation and nothing has really changed since then," said Mayor Jim McDonald.

"We're still in a precarious situation here with our fuel supply. We've been trying to find options for more secure and a cheaper source of gas to heat the community but we haven't had a lot of success so far."

Possibilities include switching to LNG or building additional propane storage capacity, but McDonald says so far, both are prohibitively expensive for the municipality.

Inuvik Gas says during freeze up this past fall from Nov. 3 to Dec. 8, ferries shuttled 35 truckloads of Inuvik-bound propane. That equates to about 1.7 million litres, sufficient to keep the town's propane supply topped up.

Freeze up and breakup service interruptions could last four to six weeks per shoulder season. Inuvik Gas says it has enough propane storage capacity to heat the town for 16 days, given a typical consumption of about 50,000 litres per day in -30 C temperatures, though it says temperatures are usually milder than that in the shoulder seasons.

The company says the town could weather a four to six week interruption in trucking by switching to natural gas from the local Ikhil well when propane storage reaches 40 per cent.

That plan doesn't sit well with McDonald, given that the reason the town is trucking in propane in the first place is due to Ikhil's dwindling gas supply.

"If we were to lose Ikhil during an outage, it would be an emergency," he said.

"It would be a real emergency because there would be no way of bringing [propane] into the community if the ferry was out."

He wonders if there's any way of reducing the cost while still providing the shoulder season ferry service.

Minister of Transportation Wally Schumann told CBC News the costs of keeping the ferry going outweigh the benefits and that he's confident that partners in industry are taking steps to handle the propane storage challenges that would come with stopping the ferry service.

with files from Mackenzie Scott, Peter Sheldon


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