N.W.T. provides update on billion dollar infrastructure projects

Progress on the Mackenzie Valley Highway, the Slave Geological Province Corridor and the Taltson Hydro Expansion Project was presented by the territory’s assistant deputy minister of energy and strategic initiatives on Thursday.

Updates on Mackenzie Valley Highway, Slave Geological Province Corridor and Taltson Hydro Expansion Project

The south spillway on the Taltson River. The government is preparing for an expansion of the hydro system. (N.W.T. Power Corporation )

An update on three major Northwest Territories infrastructure projects that will cost billions of dollars was provided Thursday.

Progress on the Slave Geological Province Corridor, the Taltson Hydro Expansion Project and the Mackenzie Valley Highway was presented by the territory's assistant deputy minister of energy and strategic initiatives, Robert Jenkins, to the government's standing committee on economic development and environment. 

"All three projects will inject money into the N.W.T. economy, providing business, employment and training opportunities for residents while delivering critical infrastructure the N.W.T. needs," he said. 

The territorial government is also hoping the projects will play a key role in the territory's recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Slave Geological Province Corridor project

The $1.1 billion project looks to build a 413-kilometre all-season road stretching through northeast of Yellowknife and into Nunavut through a mineral rich region that the territory is banking on will help spur mining.

Jenkins said an economic study in 2019 showed the all-season road will have a positive net value.

At the moment, he said the project is in a data collection and assessment phase. When asked about the possibilities of mines paying for part of it, he said moving forward that's an option that needs to be looked at. 

In 2021, archeological assessments were carried out, and Jenkins said the territory is planning a land use application that could allow geotechnical work to advance in 2022.

He said the Tłı̨chǫ government has requested the federal government initiate a regional strategic environmental assessment for the corridor. Jenkins said no decision has yet been made.

Taltson Hydro Expansion Project

The proposed expansion looks to expand the power plant's generation capacity and link electrical grids north and south of Great Slave Lake.

Jenkins said the immediate focus is phase one of the project — building a 60 megawatt expansion next to the existing 18 megawatt facility at the Twin Gorges facility on the Taltson River.

The expansion requires an upgrade to the aging control system at Nonacho Lake.

The goal is to eventually connect the Northwest Territories to either Alberta or Saskatchewan, something that's not expected to happen until 2040.

 "The reality is that a 60 megawatt project is very small for those jurisdictions to attract much interest," said Andrew Stewart, the director of the territory's Strategic Energy Division.

"We're simply not an attractive option at this time."

He said Alberta has indicated they might need the power by 2040 to serve their needs.

The project is still at its feasibility stage "with a great deal of work to do," Jenkins said.

That includes nailing down the preferred route of a transmission line either across or around Great Slave Lake, something Jenkins expects will happen next year.

Options include a direct submarine cable route through Great Slave Lake. Jenkins said the cable would come from either Asia or Europe and be delivered through the Western Arctic onto the Beaufort Sea, then transferred to barges to be shipped down the Mackenzie River and onto Hay River.

The longest option at 805 kilometres would follow the road system and either pass through or around Wood Buffalo National Park and cross the Slave River and Mackenzie River. 

Mackenzie Valley Highway

The highway looks to replace 320 kilometres of winter road between Wrigley and Norman Wells with an all-season, two-lane gravel highway. It's expected to cost $700 million.

The project is being done in sections. The territory has the funding to complete an environmental assessment but not to build the entire highway.

The environment assessment was initiated in 2012 but is not expected to be completed until 2024.

"It looks like this environmental assessment for the Mackenzie Valley Highway is going to set a world record at more than 14 years," said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly, one of the MLAs on the government committee.

After it's completed, it will take another year for regulatory requirements before construction begins.

The project ran into a hurdle this summer when engineer and design concerns were flagged at the Christina Creek crossing, which will now require a portion of the creek to be rerouted. 

Concerns have also been raised by the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation with the Mount Gaudet Access Road Project, which includes a 15 kilometre portion from Wrigley north to Mount Gaudet. A permit application with the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board has been paused as a result, however Jenkins is hopeful it will resume in 2022.

Construction of the Great Bear River bridge is expected to begin in 2023 and take three years to build.