Stephen Harper is heading north to break ground on construction of a highway that will provide the first year-round land link between the Arctic Ocean coast and the rest of Canada, an engineering feat that should reduce the costs of petroleum exploration in the Beaufort Sea.
On Wednesday, Mr. Harper will visit Inuvik, NWT, where he will preside over the official groundbreaking of the extension of the Dempster Highway to Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet on the Arctic coast currently only accessible by winter ice road, barge or air.
The 137-kilometre, all-season highway across the permafrost and muskeg will create a new northernmost point in Canada's road network and is a long-promised plank in Mr. Harper's northern strategy to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic – a plan that includes expanding economic activity in the region.
The trip 200 kilometres above the Arctic Circle is typical of Mr. Harper's itinerary each January, when the Commons is still on winter break and the Prime Minister uses the period away from the slings and arrows of Question Period to burnish his economic credentials.
Preliminary work has already begun on what will be a two-lane gravel road, and construction is expected to take until 2018. The gravel bed will sit atop permafrost on an elevated base, and planners have taken care to build as direct a route as possible without having to continually weave around the area's many lakes.
The project is heavy with political symbolism for Mr. Harper. Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker set in motion construction of the original Dempster Highway, which connects Yukon's Klondike Highway to Inuvik as part of his "Road to Resources" plan to encourage development in the North. Mr. Diefenbaker's brand of Prairie populism has many admirers in Mr. Harper's Tory caucus.
The federal government is funding $200-million of the $300-million project, which will ultimately make it cheaper to ship equipment and supplies to Tuktoyaktuk, commonly called Tuk, the expected disembarkation point for petroleum exploration in the Beaufort.
Imperial Oil is seeking Canadian regulatory approval for a potential drilling program on its acreage in the Beaufort Sea, along with partners Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP PLC. Drilling is expected to begin around 2020, two years after the road to Tuk is complete.
The new land link will also cut the cost of living for the more than 950 people who call Tuktoyaktuk home. "Everything up here is at least twice what you can buy it for in Edmonton," Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Darrel Nasogaluak says of food prices in his hamlet.
According to a study prepared for the Northwest Territories government, the new highway would also cut the exploration and development costs of the stalled MacKenzie Valley natural gas project to extract petroleum from the MacKenzie Delta, a proposed undertaking that's been shelved in light of weak prices.