WEATHER ALERT

Latest Churchill musings not grounded in reality

The dream seems enticing: use the Port of Churchill to ship Canadian oil and gas to European customers so they’re not dependent on buying energy from Russia and thereby contributing to the war effort of President Vladimir Putin.

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Opinion

The dream seems enticing: use the Port of Churchill to ship Canadian oil and gas to European customers so they’re not dependent on buying energy from Russia and thereby contributing to the war effort of President Vladimir Putin.

The reality is more down to earth, especially for Manitobans who know previous grandiose plans to develop the port on Hudson Bay have been unable to adapt to the formidable challenges of inhospitable geography, extreme weather and legitimate environmental and land-claim concerns.

The latest enthusiastic proclamations of the port’s unfulfilled potential came in the past week from two authoritative voices in the federal Conservative Party.

Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre wants to pre-approve export and shipping permits to export energy from Churchill. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Peter MacKay, a former cabinet minister in the government of Stephen Harper, wrote an opinion column that appeared in the March 31 National Post, headlined “Manitoba could become Europe’s not-so-secret weapon against Russia.”

He views Manitoba as aiding the world’s fight against Russia’s aggression against Ukraine by providing an alternative to the reliance on Russian gas, supplying allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific with Canadian energy through the Port of Churchill.

A related idea was outlined in Winnipeg last weekend by MP and leadership aspirant Pierre Poilievre, widely considered the frontrunner leading up to the Conservatives’ convention on Sept. 10. Were he to win the leadership and become prime minister, he says he would “quickly pre-approve export and shipping permits for oil at the port so that we can export Canada’s energy to the world from Churchill.”

Such think-big exhortations have been expressed often since the port was built in the late 1920s and began exporting grain shipments in 1931. Such ambitious concepts have usually been brought down to size by the magnitude of the obstacles that are specific to Churchill.

Winter weather is a major handicap, as ice blocks the port for most of the year. In the past, it’s been accessible to ships only between late July and early November although, with climate change leading to ice melting more rapidly, the shipping season is expected to grow longer.

No roads lead to Churchill. Cargo must be brought in via a railway line from The Pas, and that track is occasionally unusable owing to shifting ground due to permafrost. The pipeline proposed by Mr. Poilievre — it would carry up to 200,000 barrels daily from Alberta’s oilsands to Churchill — would also inevitably be challenged by Indigenous groups that claim the land along the route of the pipeline, and also by environmental groups concerned about the impacts — including the danger of spillage — on the pristine northern terrain.

Realistic plans for the port are encouraged but, crucially, must be developed in co-operation with Arctic Gateway Group, the consortium of First Nations, local government and corporate investors that bought the port and the Hudson Bay Railway in 2018.

CP Previous plans to develop the port on Hudson Bay have been unable to adapt to the formidable challenges of inhospitable geography, extreme weather and environmental and land-claim concerns. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Mr. Poilievre did not consult the consortium or relevant Indigenous interests before presenting his pledge in Winnipeg on Saturday, a misstep that reveals a lack of familiarity with the essential protocols for doing business in northern Manitoba.

Acknowledging the challenges faced by the port in the past does not automatically discount future successes. New circumstances – notably, wide demand for alternatives to Russian energy and a longer shipping season created by climate change – warrant new consideration of the port’s potential.

But the port dreams touted by the two Conservatives lack the depth to be taken seriously. Until Manitoba hears credible details, the musings of Mr. MacKay and Mr. Poilievre should be properly disregarded as off-the-cuff blueskying. They would be well advised to come back to Manitoba with a real plan.

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