'Pretty scary business': Churchill in uproar over Alberta proposal to purchase port

'Pretty scary business': Churchill in uproar over Alberta proposal to purchase port

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The people of Churchill, Man. have little interest in becoming a port of call for Alberta oil, says a Manitoba business leader.

A proposal that Alberta purchase the port and use it as a shipping hub for oil sands crude has been met with resistance in the tight-knit community, said Dave Daley, president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce.

Daley’s criticisms follow a proposal from United Conservative Party leadership candidate Jeff Callaway that the Alberta government purchase the Manitoba port, positioned on the northwest shore of Hudson Bay, and ship oil by there by pipeline.

For the majority of the population, the importance of preserving the environmental health of the region for tourists and residents alike outweighs any economic windfall a pipeline and tanker traffic might bring, Daley said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“Everyone always wants jobs and security in that way but oil is pretty scary business, especially on the edge of Arctic,” Daley said.

“As soon as that article hit town here there was a big uproar about ‘Say no to oil.’ “

‘A small, small investment’

At a news conference Tuesday in Edmonton, Callaway said tankers in Churchill could carry oil abroad and fetch a better price for Alberta, which has been running multibillion-dollar deficits in recent years.

“This has so many benefits not just for Alberta, but for Western Canada and Canada broadly,” he said outside the legislature. “It’s a small, small investment to make for prosperity in Western Canada.”

The province would have to buy the port from its private owners, fix the railway going to it and build a pipeline as well, he said. A road would also have to be built to the remote community, Callaway added.

He said the cost of fixing up the grain terminals and the rail line would run about $20 million.

However, a recent engineering study done by the port’s current owner, Denver-based Omnitrax, estimates the cost between $20 and $60 million.

The rail line and port of Churchill have been shut down since the spring, when a portion of the line was washed out. (Omnitrax)

Daley remains skeptical in the feasibility of the proposal. The area is riddled with trap lines operated by Indigenous trappers, which would slow regulatory approvals for pipeline construction.

The port itself is ecologically sensitive, home to threatened populations of polar bears and beluga whales. Previous attempts to transform the abandoned port into an oil shipping hub have been halted by government regulators, said Daley.

“This isn’t the first time this idea has come around to Churchill,” he said. “Omnitrax … had great aspirations of bringing oil through the Port of Churchill as well but that was shut down by the feds and the government of Manitoba.

“Churchill has an ecosystem here that’s second to none and of course that’s of great concern when anybody says oil.”

‘Bureaucracy is really slow’

The rail line and port of Churchill have been shut down since the spring, when a portion of the line was washed out.

The community is focused, not on opening the port to the interests of Alberta industry, but getting rail service restored, said Daley.

Omnitrax has said it can’t afford to fix the line, and Daley is making attempts to hold Via Rail’s stranded rail cars hostage in attempt to speed negotiations.

“Omnitrax, the feds and the province are all fighting over who is going to pay for [the repairs] and the people of Churchill are suffering,” he said. “That’s where our attentions are right now … heading that fight.

“Bureaucracy is really slow.”

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