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No evacuation fears in Inuvik
Gas supply interruption in Norman Wells raises concern in other communities

T. Shawn Giilck
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, February 7, 2013

Inuvik is unlikely to suffer the same gas problems that nearly caused the evacuation of Norman Wells Jan. 28, according to town senior administrative officer Grant Hood.

"Norman Wells really is a completely different situation from Inuvik," he said. "They've known for seven years they've been running out of gas."

The communities are both having serious gas shortage issues, but that's where the similarities end, Hood said Jan. 30.

He said Inuvik's ongoing problems with its Ikhil natural gas field could be a benefit to the town after a fashion, since steps have been taken to deal with it.

"We have a natural gas well that we've been on," Hood said. "Water got into the reservoir, so it's still operational but it doesn't have the life expectancy it once did. So we've been looking at long-term options to replace it."

The current short-term solution has been to switch over to using a synthetic natural gas or propane-based system, Hood explained. Right now, there's an eight-day supply of the mixture kept on hand.

That synthetic natural gas which costs $35.44 per gigajoule compared to the $19.30 residents have been paying for natural gas is only easily available when the roads are open so that fuel trucks can make deliveries, he said.

"I believe there are four trucks on the road constantly between here and Dawson," Hood said. "It's those transportation cost that are killing us price-wise."

During spring and fall, that option isn't available to the town due to road closures. During those periods and in emergencies the town can switch back to its natural gas well, but Hood was unsure of how long those reserves would last in a long-term emergency.

That means Inuvik is effectively on a duel-fuel system that would prevent the kind of near-catastrophic incident in Norman Wells at least in the short-term.

"For example in the fall that's what we did," he said. "We are exploring longer-term solutions."

Inuvik Gas general manager Kevin McKay said much the same thing. The new system can switch seamlessly back and forth between the synthetic natural gas and natural gas.

"We still are in better shape than other towns with two fuel sources available here," he said.

The town has been meeting with GNWT officials along with Inuvik Gas and other partners for the last year-and-a-half on a weekly basis to discuss options until a permanent supply of natural gas can be found.

None of those options consist of a permanent road from Yellowknife to Inuvik to facilitate fuel delivery, Hood said.

"There's just no appetite for building big bridges here following what happened with the Deh Cho bridge," he said.

However, the partners are looking for ways to shorten the span of road closures to alleviate some of the pressure on the town.

"They are looking at ways to shorten the time the road is actually closed," he said. "There is talk that a ferry that was being used down south may be moved up here. It can withstand more ice, and that would shorten the time the road is closed, since the ferry crossing would be available much longer."

Generally, Inuvik isn't accessible by road for an average of six weeks in spring and fall.

"There's always been the potential for a problem here, even when the field was running at more capacity, since there was only one pipeline running into town," Hood said. "In some ways we now have some redundancy as long as the field lasts, and we're trying to use less and less of it."

Inuvik GNWT vehicles have been converted back to diesel from natural gas, he said, as have some municipal vehicles.

"There is plenty of storage for diesel here, but we're trying to stay away from it as much as we can," Hood said.

Diesel prices are still higher than the synthetic gas or natural gas.

In an emergency due to the failure of the gas supply, the town has been developing an emergency plan for several months that's now being fine-tuned, Hood said.

The response of the town would depend primarily on how long the outage was predicted to last. Various municipal buildings, including the Midnight Sun Recreation Complex, would be opened to the public as a heated shelter.

The complex would not currently be an option in a power outage, though, because it doesn't have a backup generator. The town is looking at addressing that now.

Hood also noted that, depending on the time of year, Inuvik residents could take shelter in nearby towns such as Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk. The airport could also be used to facilitate an evacuation.

"The key thing is how long the outage is going to be. Is it going to be a few hours? A day? Then, as it progresses, different stages of the plan would kick in.

"In general, we have more options than Norman Wells."

Most people in Inuvik are still reliant on gas or electrical heat. Relatively few have independent options, such as wood or pellet stoves. That's a new trend though, Hood said, due to rising energy costs.

Other people, a small minority, also still use heating oil.

Hood said the other thing Inuvik has going for it is that it's a "very resilient town."

"That's not just town staff, that's everybody. They band together and do what they need to survive."

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