In September of last year, volunteers ran relay marathons of 42 miles each from Matagami in Quebec’s James Bay region to the Romaine River near the North Shore, stopping at the Montreal offices of Hydro-Québec along the way to deliver a message: environmentalists and local communities do not want their river dammed to generate hydroelectric power, or for any other purpose.
“All the rivers of Quebec are under siege by Hydro-Québec. These rivers need to flow for our future generations. They are true life-givers and we need not forget this,” read the message written by Roger Orr, a Cree resident of James Bay.
The marathon was organized by the conservation coalition Alliance Romaine to draw attention to pending plans for a large hydroelectric complex on the Romaine River in the lower North Shore area of Quebec, about 1,100 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
Hydro-Québec is a giant in the power sector. The company is responsible for meeting most of the domestic electricity demand in Quebec as well as substantial amounts in Ontario, New England, New York, and the maritime provinces. As 97 per cent of Hydro-Québec’s electricity is hydro, its stature has only increased with the global focus on climate change. Hydroelectricity is often considered a safe, renewable alternative to petroleum, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power – and Hydro-Québec is working to promote this image.
When asked if Hydro-Québec saw itself as a “green” corporation, spokeswoman Marie-Élaine Deveault said, “We don’t self-identify as a green company. We are identified as a green company…. I think hydro is part of the solution [to climate change].”
Deveault’s assertion points to Hydro-Québec’s increased focus on energy export, especially to the United States, which is seeking alternatives to coal in the era of climate change. American greenhouse gas emissions, Deveault stated, have been offset by 37 million tons through Hydro-Québec’s provision of hydroelectricity between 2001 and 2007.
When constructing massive dams and flooding areas the size of Delaware, as in the case of the Churchill Falls project, social and environmental losses can result.
In the sixties and seventies, the development of the Upper Churchill Falls by Nalcor and Hydro-Québec proceeded without any consultation of local Innu communities. The permanent alteration of the Churchill River and the creation of a reservoir meant the loss of Innu hunting, trapping, and burial grounds that had been used for centuries. The Innu protested in 2006, Nalcor began exploring the possibility of a Lower Churchill Falls project downstream from the original development.
After protest and negotiations, in September 2008 the Innu brokered the Tshash Petapen – “New Dawn” in Montagnais – agreement with the Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams to receive annual compensation for the Upper Churchill Development, as well as land claims and a possible stake in the Lower Churchill Falls project.
The agreement was considered a major victory by the leaders of the Innu Nation and a step forward for the aims of Nalcor. However, currently neither the compensation nor the power station itself has come to fruition, and some activist efforts persist.
Peter Penashue, deputy grand chief of the Innu Nation, said by text message, “Thirty years later we have a commitment for redress and hopefully the agreement will be a reality soon. It would have been so much better to deal with these issues at the beginning as opposed to 30 years later.”
Hydro-Québec consulted with and reached agreements with the communities surrounding the Romaine complex, including Minganie, Nutashkuan, Unamen Shipu, Pakua Shipi, and Ekuanitshit. These agreements include cultural and economic support as well as employment.
While Alliance Romaine has associated with some representatives from the communities affected by the Romaine Complex, they approach the issue strictly from the perspective of environmentalism and conservation.
“We understand negotiations will take place and different groups will seek compensation, but as we see it large-scale hydro is not renewable,” said Fran Bristow, another member of Alliance Romaine.
Environmental consequences of large-scale hydroelectric development can include the release of methylmercury from soil due to flooding, which poisons fish and can contaminate the food chain, as well as alteration of downstream ecosystems and the possible reduction of biodiversity. Paradoxically, large hydroelectric projects can also become a source of greenhouse gas emissions. When areas of dense forest or other vegetation are flooded, CO2 and CH4 are released at a higher rate.
Hydro-Québec & climate politics
Hydro-Québec insists that hydroelectricity is a sustainable, “green” alternative. Many dams have been removed throughout the United States to bolster fish populations decimated by hydroelectricity projects, but Hydro-Québec advertises measures to maintain biodiversity and minimize the size of reservoirs in the Romaine Complex.
What is certain is that Hydro-Québec has adapted its image well to the onset of global anxiety about the climate, aggressively emphasizing its role as a large-scale provider of safe, renewable energy. While massive dams are a hard sell environmentally, hydroelectricity providers tend to argue that such developments are the best of all current options. “We think hydroelectricity is one of the best choices. We do large-scale environmental assessments…to ensure the ecological footprint is at a minimum,” said Deveault.
Bristow opposes this logic. “We’re not asking for something utopian. In our present situation we have a choice on that impact and it can be positive or negative, and dams are not positive. Energy conservation is positive. It should no longer be a question of the best of two evils.”