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Since the petroleum age kicked into high gear in the early part of this century, Canada has become home to the world's second-largest network of oil and gas pipelines, a 242,000-kilometre aggregation of pipes, pumps and compressors that transports gas from the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin to the populated areas of the continent. But with reserves in that deposit running low, it's time to move further afield. The next major addition to the existing network is the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, a massively expensive feat of engineering prowess (potentially $10.5 billion) that would allow gas trapped in arctic fields to flow southward. Although currently on pause thanks to ballooning cost estimates, it's expected to be one of the largest construction projects in Canadian history. It brings with it a distinctly Canadian challenge: how to prevent the pipeline from melting the permafrost.
Gas will be forced through the pipeline under pressure, which creates friction with the wall of the pipeline, and that creates heat. So what? Couldn't folks use some warmth that far north? Well, if the permafrost around the pipeline melts, the pipeline itself can bend, wrinkle, warp and eventually rupture — a potential eco-disaster in a delicate environment like the Arctic.
To avoid this, the gas flowing through the Mackenzie Valley pipeline will be chilled, like a good white wine, before being served up for transport (a process that will take place at compressor stations along the route, using some of the gas to energize the cooling process). It's hoped that the permafrost will remain frosty and support the 1,220-kilometre steel straw as it winds down the Mackenzie River Valley. But there is a wild card. The Arctic appears to be warming significantly faster than the rest of the Earth, and environmental groups have warned that current plans for the pipeline haven't taken into consideration the possibility of rapid warming of the permafrost.