A ‘Game-changer’: Where Canada’s northern oilfields will be

Written by Cécile Grignon, CNN

For too long, Canada’s northern oilfields have drawn a disproportionate share of the national investment in infrastructure. But an ambitious regional revitalization project could change that, reversing a trend of disappearing roads and rail networks that leaves roads narrow and inaccessible to trucks and cargo.

A small group of civic leaders in Ontario have announced plans to spend an estimated $630 million on 15 new bypasses, bringing to 11 the number of new roads constructed as part of a one-year infrastructure investment program that spans the province’s northern northern territory.

At first glance, the project seems radical. But to the citizens of Timmins, a northern Ontario city that will be serving as a test market for the new bypasses, it is nothing short of good news.

“As it is, Timmins has become one of the worst loading and unloading points in North America,” Grignon said in an email.

For decades, the crude oil produced by the northern oilfields has been exported, leaving the communities sitting on either side of its link to world markets without economic improvement. Some say the problem is well known: In March 2015, Ontario’s environmental commissioner urged the provincial government to step in to fix it.

The province’s post-secondary institutions also plan to invest $10 million to improve the city’s two world-class and sparsely-populated high schools.

“We’ve got plenty of economic potential here, but it’s all up for grabs,” said Timmins Mayor Keith Hobbs, referring to lack of access to the huge, crude-rich oilfields. “So everyone has to take responsibility for moving ourselves up the value chain.”

Last December, the Ontario Provincial government announced a plan to create a modern infrastructure in the northern part of the province by 2020, dubbed Planning for Prosperity. The plan promises to improve both access and trade for Timmins and its three other northern communities — Amherstburg, Wallaceburg and Lakehead University.

“This is a game-changer for Timmins,” Hobbs told radio station CFTO last week. “It’s a more beautiful route to the oilfields. It’s much safer, because it’s not a sheer drop on the other side.”

But while some argue the bypasses will improve access for trucks carrying western crude oil, others argue the investments won’t fix the true issues facing the communities.

It’s unclear what effect the new infrastructure will have on rail networks and the heavy lorries and delivery trucks that transport goods from Timmins to the oilfields in Alaska. Some environmental groups argue they’ll be impacted negatively.

Nonetheless, Timmins is putting its own money where its mouth is.

“It’s a really unique opportunity for Timmins to be a test facility to try out the new solutions we’re looking at,” said Hobbs. “We’re going to see what this new infrastructure means to the country. Will it open up the northern oil fields?

“Or will the world find more tankers and trucks going west to Asia than back to North America? Timmins is our window into that.”

If the plan is successful, it could signal a change for a country known for long lopsided roads.

“Canada has always been one of the top five hydrocarbons producers in the world, with 60% of all of the crude oil produced in the country being exported to other countries,” said Grignon. “They’re all huge markets, but they’re all remote. Most are being shipped by sea to China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and so on.”

That’s why the investment could make a big difference for Timmins and the area’s east-west rail and barge systems.

“The benefits will go to the pocketbooks of Northern Ontario’s residents,” said Grignon. “The bypasses alone will provide new access for trucking contractors and their jobs. The rail side will mean new sources of revenue for railways and an improved supply chain, once it’s fully functional.”

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