Inuvik is a town of 3,600 in the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories (NWT), about 100 km south of the Beaufort Sea. It is roughly one-third Inuvialuit (Inuit), one-third First Nations, and one-third non-aboriginal. For a month of the year, the sun doesn’t rise, and for another, the sun doesn’t set. All utility pipes run above ground because of the permafrost, the mix of rock, soil, and ice that is permanently frozen just a few feet below ground. Although Amar is originally from the Sudan, he had been living in Canada for about ten years when his cousin, a cab driver making good money in Inuvik, invited him to visit. Amar visited and stayed. That was 2009. He doesn’t plan to remain, but for now the wages are good and he saves nearly all of them—there’s nothing to buy around here. But this could change: Inuvik is the largest town in Canada along the Arctic energy frontier. It is always on the verge of booming, even if the big boom that promises to change everything hasn’t shown up.
I arrived in summer on a road trip with a friend. We drove up the Dempster Highway, which begins in the tourist town of Dawson City and winds northward for 736 km to Inuvik, the only road in Canada that leads into the Arctic Circle all year round. Dawson is frozen in commemoration of its own birth, the Klondike Gold Rush that brought workers and investment in droves, but this nostalgic display quickly fades from view once we’re on the road, with forest giving way to mountains, and mountains flattening into rolling hills and eventually tundra. The gradual disappearance of trees marks a climate growing harsher; eventually, the anemic black spruces, leaning lazily in every direction thanks to the permafrost, disappear altogether. In every direction are undulating expanses of land, and for hours at a time, there are no signs of human life, no power lines or even guard railings to prevent the tired driver, hypnotized by the vastness of it all, from veering off the road.
A specter haunts Inuvik, and the Dempster was constructed in anticipation. That specter is oil and gas, and the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline that will transport it south. The Arctic is estimated to contain at least a quarter of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its oil. A third of Canada’s remaining conventionally recoverable natural gas resources and a quarter of its light crude oil reserves are located in the NWT and Nunuvat.
The possibility of massive oil exploitation has periodically galvanized the region into a frenzy, prompting visions of a boom many times more drastic than the one currently overtaking western Pennsylvania and upstate New York; it is perhaps more on par with the development of the Alberta Tar Sands in the ’70s, which transformed Calgary from a farming town into a wealthy oil capital. The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline was first proposed in 2004 by a consortium of oil giants, including Imperial Oil, ConocoPhilips, ExxonMobil, and Shell. One thousand one hundred and ninety-six kilometers long, the pipeline would connect Inuvik to northern Alberta, link up to existing Tar Sands infrastructure, and transport gas to markets across Canada and into the United States. The Pipeline is part of the Mackenzie Gas Project which, when completed, will be the largest pipeline system in Canada’s north, driving the development of other fields in the region, much as the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline will drive further development of the Tar Sands by connecting it to foreign markets.
The government approved the Mackenzie Gas Project in 2010, but two years later, disaster—of a sort, anyway—struck: US natural gas production reached an all-time high and natural gas prices dipped to a ten-year low. Suddenly, the Mackenzie Valley reserves began to seem less attractive, and the project was placed on hiatus. Shell is trying to sell its share, while the remaining partners decided at the end of 2013 not to go ahead with the project in its originally proposed form.
“The oil men, they come and go,” said Gerry Kisoun, who was born along the banks of the Delta, grew up in Inuvik, and is now Deputy Commissioner of the NWT. “They come for a while, think they are going to make big money, and then all of a sudden, somebody says ‘there’s not going to be any pipeline.’ And away they go. They’re here for a couple of days, compared with the fifty-plus years I’ve been around here and part of the community.”