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'This is the end of a life cycle'
Norman Wells Mayor Nathan Watson says delays in repairing Line 21 pipeline could cut into last remaining years of oil production

April Hudson
Northern News Services
Monday, June 5, 2017

The end of oil production in Norman Wells is on the horizon, according to the town's mayor, Nathan Watson. It's just a matter of counting down the years.

"This is the end of the life cycle, the last several years," he said in a June 2 interview with News/North.

"There are no actual hard, fast and firm numbers, but the general consensus is anywhere from five to seven years."

With such a short lifespan remaining, Watson says any delays in re-opening Line 21, which runs between Norman Wells and Zama, Alta., cut into the viability of restarting oil production.

Line 21 shut down in November after an inspection revealed riverbank instability near the pipeline. Since then, Enbridge has applied to replace a 2.5-kilometre section of the pipeline by drilling horizontally under the river, at an estimated cost of $53 million.

Although a public hearing is not required, the National Energy Board decided it is in the public interest to hold one.

The date for that is set for August, and a decision from the board on whether to approve Enbridge's plan will be due by Aug. 18, 2018.

That could mean delays for repairs, which Enbridge had hoped to start this summer.

Watson said the longer repairs take, the more likely it is Imperial Oil will decide to begin reclamation of the Norman Wells oil field instead of resuming production.

"It is a huge delay," he said.

While he expects the town to have someone at the public hearing, the town is still consulting with stakeholders and other communities before making a firm decision.

The hearing has several groups identified as intervenors, including Dehcho First Nations, Imperial Oil, Liidlii Kue First Nation and Sambaa K'e First Nation.

Those groups will be able to submit written evidence, ask questions during the hearing and submit and respond to motions, as well as make final arguments.

In an interview with News/North in May, Liidlii Kue First Nation Chief Jerry Antoine said the project should have an environmental assessment.

"The application is right in the middle of where we live ... We have significant concerns about the cultural, environmental and economic impacts," Antoine said at the time.

Watson said people in Norman Wells are also concerned about the environment, but added that needs to be tempered by economic concerns.

"We're all pro-environment here as well," he said. "We're all Northerners too here, we love the river, we're concerned about the same things ... but we're also concerned about jobs and the economy."

Prior to the shutdown, Imperial Oil employed 60 people at the Norman Wells field. Watson said that number has been steady for the past few years since the price of oil dropped.

Now, with the field in a care and maintenance state, some of those employees have been relocated elsewhere or are on shifts, he said, although he couldn't speak to exact numbers.

"I don't believe anyone's actually lost their job ... Instead of working 12-hour shifts, I believe some of the field workers now work standard eight-hour days."

Watson said his hope is for production to start up again so the town has a few more years to prepare for a future without oil production.

Already, other economic activity in Norman Wells and surrounding areas are boosting hope for the future.

"This was always going to happen, and there will be several years of reclamation activity so we want to make sure not to paint too dire a picture," he said of the impending end to oil production.

"On the ground here in Norman Wells, we're actually fortunate because there's quite a bit going on in the interim. This is probably a decent time for it to happen.

With construction of the Canyon Creek all-weather road beginning, construction of a new health centre to be completed in the fall and several large municipal projects underway such as sewer line replacements, Watson says the economic impact of the

field's shutdown should be somewhat offset.

He also hopes the shutdown comes as a "wake-up call" to the federal government to take a serious look at the proposed Mackenzie Valley Highway project.

"We get the sense it's kind of on the backburner at the highest levels. I think hopefully this scenario will put it back on the front burner," he said, pointing to tourism and mining exploration as two activities that could be bolstered by the highway. "We are going to have to diversify, we are going to have to come up with other economic drivers to further the region's future ... we're going to have to have that transportation infrastructure."

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