N.W.T. town could lose gas supply due to oil spill

The town of Norman Wells, N.W.T., has declared a state of emergency because the town's natural gas supply could soon be cut off if an oil pipeline that leaked in Alberta is not running again.


  • Imperial Oil should know by Friday whether to halt production

The town of Norman Wells, N.W.T., has declared a state of emergency because the town's natural gas supply could be cut off if an oil pipeline that leaked in northern Alberta is not up and running again soon.

A leaking pipeline northeast of Peace River, Alta., spilled 4.5 million litres of crude oil into nearby muskeg and a beaver pond last week. ((Briar Stewart/CBC))

Imperial Oil may have to temporarily shut down its oil fields in Norman Wells if Plains Midstream Canada's Rainbow pipeline, which leaked 4.5 million litres of crude oil last week near Peace River, Alta., does not resume operations.

The oil spill, considered to be one of the largest in Alberta's history, has contaminated eight acres of beaver ponds and muskeg in a densely forested area and killed seven beavers, seven ducks and one migratory bird.

While Plains Midstream Canada waits for regulatory approval to restart its repaired pipeline, Imperial Oil is running out of storage space for the oil it has produced in Norman Wells.

That is becoming a problem for people in the N.W.T. town who rely on natural gas — a byproduct of oil production — for heat, hot water and cooking purposes, Mayor Dudley Johnson told CBC News.

175 homes could be affected

Johnson said about 175 households in Norman Wells rely on natural gas, which he said will stop flowing if Imperial Oil halts oil production in the wake of the pipeline situation.

Norman Wells, N.W.T., which has a population of roughly 800, is located about 700 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife. ((CBC))

"I understand the environmental cost of a break in the pipeline, and the whole community understands that," Johnson said.

"But we do also need people to know that we're the only community on that pipeline that relies on our energy source for heating and cooking directly from an oil producer."

Imperial Oil should know by Friday if it has to halt production at the oil fields, Johnson said.

Imperial spokesman John Harding told CBC News on Monday that the company wants to help people in Norman Wells, in the event that oil production must be shut down.

However, Harding would not say what the company is prepared to do at this point.

Town will pull together, mayor says

In the meantime, the Town of Norman Wells is looking at getting a gas aerator, which would allow for propane to be pumped into homes through natural gas lines.

Greens blast pipeline company's safety record

The federal Green Party says Plains Midstream Canada's parent company has a dismal safety record in the United States.

Green Leader Elizabeth May says Plains All American was fined $3.25 million last year for 10 separate crude spills in the U.S.

May says the Houston-based corporation was also required to spend $41 million on pipeline upgrades in a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. [Read full story]

But Johnson said the town cannot find a large enough plane to transport the equipment up north. Furthermore, the gas aerator would not solve the town's problems for long, he said.

"We have about 100,000 litres of propane here at present time," Johnson said. "But that will not last us [beyond] about two weeks [maximum], then we'll have to get more flown in."

Johnson said the Northwest Territories Power Corp. can provide backup electricity, and most of the town's government buildings have diesel backup systems.

If the heat does get cut off, people can go to the local community hall and other venues for heat and hot water, Johnson said.

Regardless of what happens, Johnson said the community will pull together.

"I know that I've talked to a number of residents who say, 'Well, we'll get [our] propane barbecues out, we'll invite friends over, family over, and we will do what it takes here until we're past this crisis,'" he said.

Norman Wells has been working on finding an alternative energy source to natural gas, since the town's supply is dwindling. Local businesses have until July 2013 to find another source of energy, while residents have until the following year.

With files from The Canadian Press