Trump’s budget could cause infrastructure crisis for rural and Native Alaskans

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Under Trump’s budget, air service to many rural communities in Alaska may be eliminated. Photo: Deadhorse Airport (which will certainly remain economically viable, as it is next to Prudhoe Bay), Mia Bennett, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump released his proposed budget today, and the reaction has been swift and scathing. Rural communities, healthcare, the environment, science, and climate change research all face enormous cuts. Trump may have run a campaign on behalf of the common man. But given that the president spends half of his time running the government from the palatial Mar-a-Lago, it’s painfully obvious that he cares little about the fates of some of the nation’s most vulnerable people and places.

Rural America, much of which ironically voted for Trump, will have to contend with deep funding cuts if his budget is approved. As a state with one of the highest proportions of rural residents, Alaska would be particularly negatively impacted. Some 34% of Alaskans live outside the state’s cities. Alaska’s rural populations, too, are different than those in the Lower 48. While much of rural America voted for Trump, counties with large Alaska Native populations tended to vote for Clinton. (The same is true of rural, largely Native American counties in the Lower 48). Between 2008 and 2012, rural Alaska actually had some of the largest shifts in voting: many counties that had opted in 2008 for the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, voted in 2012 for Barack Obama. This may reflect the fact that an Alaskan, Sarah Palin, was no longer on the ticket.

Yet it may also suggest that rural Alaska Natives believe that a Democratic president may do more for them than a Republican. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Trump taking a tour of Alaska to witness climate change first-hand and visit Alaska Native settlements. Obama’s visit to Kotzebue made him the first sitting president to visit the American Arctic. In contrast, Trump proposes to eliminate the very agency that Obama tapped to lead the process of of climate change mitigation in coastal communities in Alaska, including determining which ones should be relocated. Unsurprisingly, then, in 2016, rural Alaska again tended to vote Democratic.

Alaska-2016-Election-Results

Rural Alaska to Trump: “Not my president?” 2016 Presidential election results for Alaska at the state house district level. Source: Ali Zifan/Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

If Trump’s budget is approved, Alaska Native villages could face an infrastructure crisis. During the campaign, Trump talked big about planning to ask Congress for a trillion dollar infrastructure bill. But maybe he had in mind a few big-ticket projects like pipelines and ports, for his budget proposes to make deep cuts in federal funding to vitally important small-scale infrastructure that supports rural livelihoods in Alaska.Trump wants to pay for a “big, beautiful, wall” to ostensibly keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. He doesn’t want to pay for shore walls in Alaska that would keep out a rising sea.

Here’s a rundown of how Trump’s budget would jeopardize infrastructure and well-being in rural Alaska.

  • Scraps programs like the Essential Air Service, which provides $21 million a year to guarantee air service to 61 communities in Alaska that otherwise would be viable in a market situation, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which reduces the cost of heating for people with extremely high bills in places like frigid Alaska. People living in communities in the Lower 48 that lose air service due to the elimination of EAS may just have to drive longer distances, but that isn’t an option in Alaska. As the state’s sole representative to Congress, Don King (R), remarked last year, “That’s what serves my community…I don’t have highways. I don’t have streets. I’ve got air.”
  • Eliminates the Economic Development Administration, which the budget considers a “duplicative administration” even though it is the only federal agency exclusively focused on economic development. The EDA assists with regional development in places like Alaska, Appalachia, the Deep South, and New England.In 2013, EDA invested $838,155 in 12 projects in the State of Alaska. According to its website, its “investments help Alaska communities achieve bottom-up, locally-defined economic development goals and strategies.” Of the funds in 2013, nearly half ($370,000) went to six American Indian/Alaska Native economic development planning organizations in the state.

    The EDA has invested in Alaska Native communities since its establishment in 1965. The village of Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island halfway between Alaska and Russia, received $11,500 in the 1960s for its restoration. In the below photo from the EDA, the native Yupik people prepare an umiak (walrus-skin boat) in Gambell.

    Gambell, Prince, Alaska.

    Villagers making an umiak in 1967 Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Photo: Economic Development Administration.

    One example of a more recent program that the EDA has funded in Alaska is a $700,000 investment in workforce development in rural Alaska, granted in May 2014. The grant went to the  Association of Village County Presidents in Bethel to purchase equipment used to train workers in mechanical disciplines, including aviation maintenance. This is a crucial skill in a region where many rely on small planes for transportation between remote villages. This program and many other similar ones once funded by the EDA may now no longer be possible.

  • Eliminates infrastructure assistance to Alaska Native Villages provided through the Environmental Protection Agency. This is one of the over 50 EPA programs the budget would cut due to being categorized as “lower priority and poorly performing programs.” Through its Alaska Native Villages and Rural Communities Water Grant Program, the EPA has provided over half a billion dollars in grants since 1995 to assist with clean water provisioning. At least 3,300 homes in rural Alaska, mostly in the western portion of the state, lack running water or flush toilets.
  • Cuts the budget for the Hazardous Substance Superfund Account by $330 million. There are eight active Superfund and Superfund-equivalent sites in Alaska including severely contaminated mine and military sites. Local and state governments would be expected to fill in the funding gap – but given Alaska’s nearly $3 billion budget deficit, this seems unlikely.
  • Overall, appears to cut research to climate change by 20%. Alaska is warming twice as fast as the Lower 48, making climate change research even more urgent. Even as climate change opens new opportunities for Arctic development, it threatens many coastal communities. Some of them, like Kivalina and Shishmaref, may even have to relocate inland to avoid rising sea levels, eroding shorelines, and more severe storm surges, as this report by the Army Corps of Engineers explains. The budget would cut funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, by $250 million. Specific programs targeted include coastal and marine management, which could unduly affect Alaska since its 6,640 miles of coastline are longer than the coastlines of all other states combined.

    Trump’s budget argues that coastal and marine management takes “lower priority than core functions maintained in the Budget such as surveys, charting, and fisheries management.” But successful fisheries are dependent on well-managed coasts. A study involving NOAA found, for instance, that ocean acidification puts Alaska fisheries and communities at high risk, particularly in the southeast and southwest where many depend on the sea for their livelihoods. According to a NOAA report, in Alaska in 2012, the seafood industry provided 55,890 jobs and accounted for over a billion dollars in landings revenue – a third of the nation’s total and nearly triple the next highest state, Massachusetts. If Trump thinks that this lucrative industry can be maintained without research into coastal management and climate change, he is wrong.

    NOAA-Ocean-Acidification-Alaska

    Studies involving NOAA that produce maps such as these, of the economic impacts of ocean acidification on Alaska’s fisheries, may no longer be possible if funding is cut.

  • Eliminates the Denali Commission, which was formed in 1998 by legendary Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (R) to help rural Alaska Native communities obtain infrastructure, health care, and job training. The commission has had its ups and downs, including an internal fiasco in which its own leader suggested it should be axed. Yet Obama’s decision to allocate $2 million to the commission to lead a project determining which coastal villages should be relocated gave it a new and important role. The Trump budget may now yank this away.

    Coastal communities in Alaska are counting on the government to step in to help them combat climate change. In 2015, Diane Ramoth, vice chair of the Selawik tribal government council and treasurer of the NANA Regional Corporation, expressed, “This is a very, very dire situation that we’re in if our United States government is going to allow our communities to no longer exist.”

    There is something even more dire than the current administration’s wish to eliminate a commission assisting the 31 coastal communities that may potentially slide into the sea. It is that the president seeks to undercut many of the basic services, programs, and subsidies that make modern life possible in the hundreds of communities across rural Alaska, climate change or no climate change. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. government effectively forced Alaska Natives to settle in place. But now, it does not even want to pay to support the infrastructure that people have become locked into. Under Trump, Alaska is no longer the Last Frontier, but rather the Forgotten Frontier.

What’s one big area with regard to Alaska that isn’t being defunded? Support for the oil industry. The President’s 2018 budget plans to “strengthen the Nation’s energy security by increasing funding for Department of Interior programs that support environmentally responsible development of energy on public lands and offshore waters.” This could possibly pave the way for more drilling in places like the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, America’s largest tract of undisturbed public land.

More drilling may be good news for the Alaskan state budget and all of its residents who receive Permanent Fund Dividends every year. But you can’t do much with money if you have no air service, no clean water, no job training, and no climate resilient infrastructure – except maybe pay for your skyrocketing heating bill, no longer subsidized under Trump.

2016 NPR-A Lease Sale Tract Results Map (12/14/2016). Source: Dept. of Interior/BLM.

2016 NPR-A Lease Sale Tract Results Map (12/14/2016). Source: Dept. of Interior/BLM.

Five ways the Dakota Access Pipeline affects the Arctic

Construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Lars Plougmann/Flickr Creative Commons License 2.0

Protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota have erupted this past week. For months, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies have been demonstrating at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers to stop the pipeline’s construction, which would cut through the tribe’s water resources and sacred lands with potentially damaging consequences. The $3.7 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline would carry oil fracked from the Bakken Formation across four states to a refinery outside Chicago. Fortune 500 company Energy Transfer Partners is overseeing the pipeline’s construction, which is planned to be able to move half of the oil coming out of the Bakken Formation every day.

Dakota Access Pipeline protests: No parallel in the Arctic

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has become a flash point for indigenous rights and climate change activism in a way that no recently proposed resource extraction project in the Arctic has. That’s not to say that there haven’t been significant environmental movements to halt industrial development in the Arctic. From 1979-1981, Sami and Norwegian protests attempted to stop the construction of the Alta Dam in Norway. The dam was eventually built, but protestors were successful in preventing a Sami village from being flooded. The construction of the $400 million Karahnjukar hydropower plant and aluminum smelter in Iceland in the mid-2000s also sparked a significant protest movement in Iceland that attracted global attention. Finally and more recently, 44 Greenpeace activists were arrested after scaling the Russian offshore oil platform Prirazlomnaya in 2014, while hundreds of protesters gathered in Seattle in 2015 to rally against Shell’s plans to drill in the Alaskan Arctic.

Yet at least in recent memory, no Arctic protest has captured global attention in the way that the movement against DAPL has. I’m not even sure if anyone waved a sign to protest the arrival of the Goliat floating production, storage, and off-loading unit when it arrived in Hammerfest last year to commence operations at the world’s northernmost drilling site in the Barents Sea. In a Barents Observer article from earlier this year, a politician from northern Norway admitted the difficulties with protesting Arctic oil drilling, especially in a country like his where the future of the enormous domestic oil industry lies to the north.

The firestorm that is #NoDAPL

While drilling in the European Arctic continues relatively under the radar, the #NoDAPL movement has gained enormous traction in the media and on the internet. The main protest site along the Missouri River has attracted celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, an actress whose arrest for trespassing and rioting garnered media headlines. Mark Ruffalo, who has made a considerable effort over the years to raise climate change awareness, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian asserting:

“Given this ongoing shift to clean energy – and the fact that renewables offer a more sustainable, more prosperous, and healthier future – it seems almost unbelievable that North Dakota authorities are spending energy and money violently defending a dying and dangerous system of energy production.”

North Dakotan authorities want a pipeline because it will supposedly make shipping oil out of the state safer. Since June 2012, more Bakken crude has been moved by rail than by pipeline due to a surge in production and resulting pipeline congestion. Rail cars heavy with fuel, however, are subject to explosion. Moving oil by pipeline is also cheaper, which is an important motivation for both oil and shipping companies as the price of oil continues to remain low. As this Wired article explains, two years ago, Energy Transfer Partners promised oil refiners that the pipeline would be completed by the end of this year in exchange for them agreeing to purchase oil shipped through it at rates set in 2014, back when oil hovered around $75 a barrel. If the pipeline is not completed on time, rates will have to be renegotiated and DAPL may no longer be such a lucrative project. Time is money when it comes to oil, and that’s why so many oil majors had to pull out of the Arctic once the price dropped below $80-$90 a barrel – said to be the range of the breakeven price for a barrel coming out of the north.

How a protest in North Dakota affects the Arctic

Tuktoyaktuk-Oil-Rig

An oil rig floats offshore from the largely indigenous Canadian hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories. The Arctic is no stranger to oil and gas development. Photo: Mia Bennett

The Standing Rock protests shine a light on five issues that are key in Arctic development: indigenous rights, fossil fuel infrastructure, asymmetric protests, climate change, and unconventional oil. Many projects in the Arctic involve these controversial issues, including the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas project in Russia and the new highway to the Arctic Ocean in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Thus, the protests in North Dakota have the potential to affect the Arctic. Here’s how.

1. Indigenous rights

A map of native lands and pipelines around the U.S.-Canada border

A map of native lands and pipelines around the U.S.-Canada border. Map by Cryopolitics.

Like many indigenous peoples in the Arctic, the Sioux suffer from poor health, pervasive unemployment, and low incomes. Shockingly in Sioux County, where the Standing Rock reservation is located, nearly 24,000 years of potential life are lost per 100,000 people compared to the North Dakota average of 6,305 (PDF of report). Reliance on local land and water resources in both North Dakota and the Arctic means that the environment requires safeguarding. And in the North American Arctic and the Lower 48, land is one thing that been guaranteed to many indigenous peoples through land claims agreements and settlements. The boundaries of Standing Rock were delineated in 1889 by the Dawes Act, a policy that had devastating consequences nationwide for Native Americans due to its attempt to break up the tribal system of societal organization. But it did guarantee them their rights to the land.

Even though many indigenous peoples now own and oversee their land in both Canada and America, industrial development on the outskirts of these protected areas is still putting pressure on them. As the map above shows, pipeline companies simply avoid having to deal with native land regulations by laying them right outside their jurisdictions. To be fair, these projects often give jobs to native people. But they can also wreak havoc on their environment and precious resources even though they do not directly cut through their land.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, however, would run directly through the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply. Protests there emerged first and foremost out of a concern among the natives, who are members of the Dakota and Lakota nations, for their water and land. “Water is life” is one of the movement’s main slogans. Last week, 50 demonstrators were arrested for sitting and blocking the pipeline’s construction in land that the Sioux consider theirs, but which technically belongs to Energy Transfer Partners. A court injunction in October denied the tribe’s request to halt construction of the pipeline through what they claim to be sacred grounds.

Pipelines placed anywhere near a water source are risky. Oil sands extraction in Alberta has polluted the Athabasca River, which supports many indigenous communities and ultimately flows to the Arctic Ocean. And in the Arctic itself, the countless number of ponds, streams, and rivers in the boggy tundra mean that pollution of a water source might be even less easily contained. Pipelines seem like quiet and sturdy infrastructures, but the protests in North Dakota are attempting to show that if one thing goes wrong, an entire way of life could be jeopardized.

2. The proliferation of fossil fuel infrastructure

If built, DAPL will perpetuate the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure across North America. While politicians in forums like the COP 22 meeting convening this month in Morocco talk about the need for states to lower greenhouse gas emissions, new pipelines continue to be bolted into the ground. Brand-new liquefied natural gas terminals are being constructed as well, particularly in the U.S. In December 2015, a glut of American-produced oil and gas led to the lifting of a 40-year ban on exporting U.S. oil. Now, American crude exports are “reshaping the world’s energy map,” according to Bloomberg.

Even if protestors and native groups are able to halt the construction of pipelines that would cross native land in the Lower 48 and Canadian provinces, a large amount of infrastructure is slated to be constructed in the Arctic in the coming years. If DAPL protestors are successful in stopping the pipeline’s construction, however, this might make project such as the proposed Alaska liquefied natural gas pipeline appear to be a less economically secure investments if protests, especially those organized by indigenous peoples with land claims, could threaten the ability to finish construction in a timely and profitable manner.

3. Social movements that unite indigenous and environmental activists on a global scale

The NoDAPL movement is a magnet for indigenous and environmental activists because it concerns issues dear to both movement’s hearts. Surprisingly, this is contrary to the Arctic, where many development projects are seen in a more black and white frame. The protests against Arctic offshore oil, for instance, have typically been about preventing climate change rather than protecting indigenous interests. Many indigenous groups in the Alaskan Arctic actually have a material stake in offshore drilling due to the fact that they own corporations with vested interests in the industry.

But if there were an issue in the Arctic like DAPL that attracted the interests of both indigenous and environmental activists, it could be a lightning rod for global dissidents to come and support the movement. The events in North Dakota show that not all locals are happy about out-of-state and foreign activists coming to ally themselves with the cause. CNN interviewed members of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, including one man who complained about the non-local protesters he said were responsible for inciting violence. “It irks me. People are here from all over the world,” he remarked. “If they could come from other planets, I think they would.”

If a protest were to arise in the Arctic, it would generally be less feasible for allies and supporters of the movement to travel to the site given the sheer costs of getting up north. The movement in Iceland against the Karahnjukar project, which mainly focused on environmental issues, managed to attract many international protesters. There was even an organized “Summer of International Dissent against Heavy Industry” in 2007 that featured concerts and free vegan food for international dissenters. But just as in Standing Rock, many places in the Arctic simply cannot handle the sheer volume of people who might come thinking they are helping local causes when they are actually straining local resources.

4. Gas flaring and climate change

Night light satellite imagery reveals the prominence of gas flaring in the Bakken Oil Fields and Athabasca Oil Sands and its proximity to the Arctic.

Night light satellite imagery reveals the prominence of gas flaring in the Bakken Oil Fields and Athabasca Oil Sands and its proximity to the Arctic.

While it’s easy to see DAPL as the site of a relatively localized project and protest, its construction would have knock-on effects on other regions, including the Arctic. If DAPL is built, it will help secure and encourage the continued projection of oil from the Bakken formation. This could be perilous for the Arctic, as a NASA study found that every year between 2000 and 2015, nitrogen dioxide emissions increased 1.5% at Bakken and 2% over the Athabasca oil sands in Canada. Both Bakken and Athabasca are high-latitude oil fields whose emissions can exacerbate Arctic warming. Many of the pollutants they release into the atmosphere come from the wasteful practice of gas flaring, which is done to get rid of excess oil that cannot be economically shipped to market. The bright lights of gas flares can even be seen from space. The above map shows how the polluting gas flares over the Bakken and Athabasca oil fields are some of the closest major areas of industrial development to the Arctic. If the knock-on consequences of the DAPL protests mean that Bakken production is slowed, Arctic warming may be, too.

5. The rise of unconventional oil

On the other hand, let’s say the protests are successful in stopping DAPL and Bakken production does slow. This could push producers to look to other resource frontiers, such as the Arctic. As easy-to-access oil has dried up over the past few decades outside of the Middle East, tapping into unconventional oil resources has becoming more commonplace. Fracking is becoming an accepted way of dredging up more of the black stuff from deep underground. Deepwater oil in the Gulf of Mexico is also considered unconventional, as is Arctic oil. Since at least 2008, North American Arctic oil, especially in Canada where there is even less infrastructure to get product out to market than in Alaska, has been on the back burner. This is partly due to the glut created by the Bakken boom, which has made Arctic oil impossible to profitably extract. But if Bakken were to suddenly cease production (an unlikely proposition, but let’s just hypothesize) and prices were to go back up, Arctic oil could potentially be more attractive.

From North Dakota to the Arctic

The plains of North Dakota may seem a long way away from the Arctic Ocean. But while no project so far has yet united environmental and indigenous movements in the same electrifying manner in the Arctic, many of the underlying conditions in the North – an indigenous people with rights to land who still feel neglected, vulnerability to pollution and climate change, and the dominance of the extractive industries – are the same. The NoDAPL movement doesn’t seem to be letting up and protestors have vowed to stay through winter. Ultimately, it may be the longer staying power of the movement in North Dakota, which is centrally located within the U.S., reachable by car, and, while cold, not insanely so in winter, which allows the NoDAPL protests to succeed. In the Arctic, similar movements might eventually have to come in from the cold.

Canada: Proposed “Northern Corridor” would bypass much of North

Oil-Sands-Alberta-Canada

A Northern Corridor – so that Canada can have more of this. Oil sands extraction in Alberta. Photo: Mia Bennett.

A new research paper issued by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy has proposed establishing a right-of-way for a 7,000-kilometer long “Northern Corridor” across Canada. Running from Labrador to British Columbia and connecting with the Arctic Ocean through the Northwest Territories, the hypothetical corridor would, in the report’s words, “potentially bundle roads, rail lines, pipelines, and transmission lines into a relatively narrow right-of-way.” The first reason listed for the proposal of such a corridor is the “now apparent opportunity cost of Canada’s restricted ability to export commodities to world markets.” A Northern Corridor would open up new areas for resource development and streamline access to ports for Canada’s exports, which are increasingly headed east to Asia rather than south to the United States.

Report authors Andrei Sulzenko and G. Kent Fellows claim that deciding upon the route and right-of-way for a Northern Corridor all in one go would be better for development than the incremental construction of infrastructure across the North. Yet a one-go approach is less flexible in responding to changes in social, commercial, or environmental circumstances. This is particularly problematic in a region changing as fast as the Canadian Arctic.

The report also does not question whether the development of export-oriented resources is the best way forward for Canada, let alone for its Northerners. The authors downplay concerns about the current drop in global commodity prices by noting, “Short-term variations in price are exceedingly common and are generally very large relative to long-run trends.” But it’s these short-term variations that upend communities, while global corporations profit over the long-term from these long-run trends (more on this in a few paragraphs).

The authors also argue that a corridor would deliver social and economic benefits to Northern communities even though the corridor they map out bypasses two of Canada’s three territories: Yukon and Nunavut.

Canada-Northern-Corridor-Map

Map of proposed Northern Corridor. Source: Sulzenko and Fellows (2016).

The agnostic gospel of export-oriented development

Throughout the report, resource-based export-oriented development is presented as the unquestionable future of the economy in the Canadian North. At the same time, the Northern Corridor is touted as offering a diverse array of economic opportunities. In an interview with Arctic Deeply, Fellows asserts, “Having a corridor in place allows us to build in a mode-agnostic way.” The corridor may be flexible in terms of whether a pipeline, railroad, or road would be built, but it is hardly agnostic or value-free overall. Once carved into the ground, the rigid path of a corridor can permanently disrupt the pathways of indigenous peoples and migrating animals as it makes way for trucks and cargo.

Of course, indigenous peoples who might be going out to hunt, visit relatives in other communities, or carry out other day-to-day activities would also likely use these new roads and corridors. In the remote desert regions of Australia, which bear many similarities to Northern Canada, the government set up schemes in the 1970s to help Indigenous Australians purchase vehicles. As anthropologist Sarah Holcombe quotes Gertrude Stoltz, “It was only the Toyota that could actually replace the loss of mobility people had suffered since they were institutionalised [from] the late 1940s’ (2001: 227).

A corridor can also disrupt the people and towns it does not connect. While the report describes the potentially lowered costs of living and transport as a benefit for people in the Northern towns that would be connected by the new transportation corridor, this streamlining of flows of goods and people across the North could occur at the expense of more remote communities located away from the corridor. Just think of all the little farm towns along the two-lane highway in places like California that shriveled up once the eight-lane Interstate 5 was built.

The report concludes, “The Northern Corridor presents significant strategic benefits to Canada in terms of trade and investment objectives, Arctic sovereignty, and transportation system rationalization.” Trade, sovereignty, and rationalization of transportation are all primarily goals of the state as it seeks to consolidate power and accumulate capital through industrial development. The state’s gains, particularly in terms of rights and finance, can be redistributed to indigenous peoples, just as they have been in places like Canada and Australia. In the iron-ore mining region of the Pilbara in Western Australia, Rio Tinto awarded a $200 million mining contract to a joint venture partly owned by the Eastern Guruma people. Similarly in Canada, an indigenous corporation won the contract to extend the Canadian highway system from Inuvik to Tukyotaktuk. And when their land claims are recognized, indigenous peoples can halt development, too, as they have done in British Columbia to counter the so-called oil sands pipeline. Yet interpreted otherwise, the very promotion of a Northern Corridor may be perceived as a response to difficulties encountered by the state and industry in expanding across Canada’s southwest.

While the report’s authors declare themselves to be “agnostic” on the costs and benefits of the corridor, the overall content and tone of the report betrays the fact that ultimately, the interests of Northerners would come second to the interests of the state and big business. The content and maps within the report (which also portray a Canada without reference to sea ice or even surrounding nations) depict new opportunities for resource and export development rather than new connections between indigenous settlements in the North, few of which are ever named. The report quotes a document published by a 2013 task force established under the umbrella of The Council of Ministers Responsible for Transportation and Highway Safety to investigate “Integrating Rural, Northern and Remote Regions with Core Transportation Networks.” The name of the task force says it all, but I’ll add the paragraph excerpted by the report for color:

“Rural, northern and remote regions in Canada have large, untapped areas of resources which could make a substantial contribution towards the economic growth and prosperity of Canada. To develop this wealth and to provide safe, reliable and equitable access for nearby communities, transportation infrastructure systems to resource rich regions need to be enhanced, expanded and integrated with core transportation networks leading to important trade networks.”

Long-distance routes like the Northern Corridor are all about creating wormholes, to use a term by geographer Eric Sheppard, from places like Tokyo and Beijing to remote resource frontiers like the Canadian Arctic. These wormholes speed up the movement of capital, goods, and people across vast spaces. In the Arctic in particular, climate change is driving the expansion of these international trade networks and corridors while local transportation networks, often based on ice roads that are experiencing shorter and shorter seasons, suffer.

Lessons from other transportation corridors

The University of Calgary report makes reference to seemingly successful transportation corridor projects in three other areas: Western Australia’s Pilbara region, East Africa, and Europe. Western Australia is comparable to Northern Canada given its remoteness, sparse population, ample resource deposits, and indigenous populations. But despite a decades-long iron-ore boom fueled by demand from East Asia, the Pilbara is now falling fast.

To cite one infrastructure-related casualty of the bust, the state government is trying to sell the port of Utah Point, located in the hub city of Port Hedlund. The Wall Street Journal explains that the port was built with taxpayer money to attract small-scale commodity producers, who would in theory help break the monopoly of mining industry giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto on export facilities. But in the face of the global commodity downturn and mounting debts, the state is forced with selling Utah Point. The state-owned cargo port, which is the largest in Western Australia, could be next on the list. It’s therefore unclear whether investing hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure pays off in the long run, especially when it leaves behind railroads, ports, and other facilities that end up being bought by Chinese state-owned enterprises.

Port-Hedland-Australia.jpg

Port Hedland, one of the hubs of the Pilbara, Western Australia’s iron ore mining region. Photo: Photo: J. Thomas Macmurray/Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0 License).

Benefits and bottom lines

Enormous societal problems are created not so much if modern industry never arrives, but rather what happens, first of all, when it does, and second of all, when it tries to leave. In the Pilbara mining towns, job losses and sharp declines in popualtion growth are mounting due to a slump in commodity prices and fall-off in demand from major iron ore buyers like China. This is the same type of slump that the UofC report waves off as “short-term variation,” but it has dire consequences for communities built around resource extraction.

The president of a local shire expressed, “We’re pretty much devastated. Very disturbed, very worried of course…The roll-on effect is enormous, for businesses and for people’s well being.” In the same Australian Broadcasting Corporation article, Rio Tinto, which has cut jobs at its local mining operation, said that it will “transform the business to remain globally competitive.” Once a corridor is built to reach global markets, the bottom line suddenly becomes global. Resource operations are in Western Australia and Northern Canada are put in direct competition with each other and those in Brazil, China, Africa, and elsewhere. Mining corporations use the world as their balance sheet, with taxpayer-funded transportation corridors serving as the means to move around their assets.

Communities built around mines and other extractive sites can still be faced with enormous challenges even a century after the boom. South Wales, which prospered from exporting coal to global markets in the 19th century, is now one of the areas of the United Kingdom that is most heavily in favor of exiting the European Union. Guardian commentator Aditya Chakrabortty writes:

“The very landscape of south Wales is littered with broken promises. The mining communities were offered high-tech “industrial villages” by Labour. They never came. On the outskirts of Newport stands a giant white plant that was meant to be an LG factory. Millions in subsidies were poured in, the politicians prostrated themselves – and the Korean firm still bolted, leaving the site empty for a decade.”


Even if a boom were to come to Canada thanks to a Northern Corridor, the real question is what would come after it ended, after enormous outlays had been spent on infrastructure in one of the world’s most remote regions, where disused railroad tracks are hardly going to be turned into the next High Line.

The ship and the snake

An Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime legend from the Pilbara region tells the story about a snake living in a body of water near Port Hedland, the town where the state is now desperately trying to sell off its port. The book Kangkushot by Jolly Read and Peter Coppin explains:

“The deep pool in the huge landlocked area of water was called Jalkawarrinya. In their dreamtime this pool was the home of a blind water snake that headed out to sea when the first big ship entered the port.”

The departure of the water snake following the arrival of the “first big ship” is a metaphor for the replacement of indigenous ways of life with industrial modes of production. While indigenous peoples can profit from industry and continue certain facets of their pre-industrial practices like hunting and fishing, once the ship has entered the harbor, the snake might never come back. Even if it does, it will be faced with a ruined landscape of enormous salt piles, emptied-out, heat-blasted iron ore mines, and maybe the occasional skeleton of a 3.2-kilometer long iron ore train that once ran along a corridor dreamed up in a distant past.

Pilbara-Iron-Ore-Mining

Iron ore mining in the Pilbara. Photo: J. Thomas Macmurray/Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0 License).