Canadian hydropower, colonialism, and social justice: why importing more hydropower to the U.S. is morally wrong and a climate disaster

Canadian hydropower, colonialism and social justice: why importing more hydropower to the U.S. is morally wrong and a climate disaster

Introduction

Canadian hydropower fails every metric for green, sustainable, renewable and socially responsible  energy.  This electricity is made possible only by Canada’s colonialism, state-sponsored violence against people and nature, racism and discrimination that plagues the nation today. Most of Hydro-Quebec’s vast hydropower empire has been built on ancestral Aboriginal lands without the consent of the people who had used the land for millennia. Canadian hydropower has destroyed river ecology, biodiversity, water quality, altered natural river flows and caused erosion and flooding. Massive reservoirs behind the dams operate like storage batteries, holding back water until distant metropolitan areas need to turn on the lights. Dams trap sediment that would otherwise flow to the ocean, harming fisheries and undermining the ocean’s ability to store carbon. Additionally, dams are a major hazard to those living downstream. Flooding and river flow alterations make it impossible for Indigenous people to follow their traditional fishing, hunting, gathering and trapping practices that sustained them for millennia. Canadian dams poison the environment and wild foods with methylmercury.  

Brief history: hydropower development in Eastern Canada

Colonization systematically displaced Aboriginal people forcing them off traditional lands and onto reservations or government sponsored settlements. This cleared the way for resource extraction including hydropower development. Canada’s industrial scale hydropower development began in earnest in the 1950s without consulting Aboriginal people and absent studies to assess environmental impacts. In Eastern Canada, the government built what is today the ninth largest dam in the world (Bourassa, 7,722 MW) without the knowledge or consent of Aboriginal people, draining and diverting 32,400 square miles of forests, wetlands and rivers.  Strangers Devour the Land by Boyce Richardson documents Hydro-Quebec’s massive James Bay project that profoundly disrupted the environment and indigenous communities. Hydropower development in James Bay caused an acrimonious conflict between Hydro-Quebec and Indigenous communities that continues today. Hydro-Quebec faces at least three lawsuits from  communities where dams were built: a $1.5 billion lawsuit over existing dams, a $500 million suit over dams on the Bessamites River and suit filed in early 2020  for $9.1 million in damages and alleging “institutional bad faith” by Hydro-Quebec with regard to transmission corridors for the new Romaine River dam. In the 1990s, Indigenous Cree and Inuit campaigned against Hydro-Quebec’ Phase 2 James Bay dam project which was cancelled after the campaign visited New York City on Earth Day in 1990. Then-New York Governor Mario refused to sign a power purchase agreement thanks to the efforts of the Cree and Inuit. 

After James Bay Phase 2 was defeated, the government continued its relentless pursuit of new rivers on more ancestral Aboriginal lands. The 2004 film, One More River: The Deal That Split the Cree exposes tactics of intimidation and manipulation of local communities which eventually conceded to Hydro-Quebec’s demands to flood 16,000 square miles of the Rupert, Broadbeck and Nottaway Rivers to expand the capacity of the La Grande river hydroelectric facility to 16,527 MW. In 2009, Hydro-Quebec began yet another megaproject obliterating the Romaine River, Quebec’s last remaining longest and wildest river despite protests from the community, as shown in the film Seeking the Current. Hydro-Quebec began building the Romaine dams simultaneously with the start of the  permitting process in the U.S. for the Northern Pass and Champlain Hudson Power Express transmission corridors to Boston and New York. The Romaine $8 billion facility (1,550 MW) is scheduled for completion in 2021. Of the 22 dams planned in Canada, Hydro-Quebec’s Romaine 4 dam will cause the highest levels of methylmercury contamination. It will flood 278 square miles (144 square kilometers) of river and boreal forests, releasing large amounts of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. The climate impacts of these new releases of greenhouse gases have never been studied or taken into account in calculating whether Hydro-Quebec will deliver “clean” energy to New York or Boston.

Hydro-Quebec’s Dam in Labrador

In the 1970s in Newfoundland and Labrador Province, Nalcor Energy in partnership with Hydro-Quebec, built the 5,400 megawatt Churchill Falls dam flooding and diverting massive water resources over a 27,000 square mile area, building a 2,200 square mile reservoir. No known records indicate government officials contacted the Innu people before damming the Churchill River; nor did they offer compensation after the flooding. An acrimonious conflict continues to this day between Indigenous people and Hydro-Quebec’s Churchill Falls dam.

The Churchill Falls dam produces one-sixth of Hydro-Quebec’s current hydroelectricity supply and it has a contract for almost all the output until 2041. Churchill Falls “has always been extremely profitable for Hydro-Quebec. In 2018, Hydro-Quebec’s profit from Churchill Falls power was approximately $1.2 billion.” The Churchill Falls facility uses almost 65% of the Churchill River’s flow. It was one of the most significant, destructive resource development projects in the region.  

Methylmercury poisoning 

Since at least the 1980s, hydropower production in Canada has caused methylmercury contamination of the environment and food supplies. This occurs when hydropower operations flood forests, rivers and wetland releasing naturally occurring mercury contained in soils, trees, wetlands and other organic material. The mercury enters the water and undergoes a biological process that converts it to methylmercury, a lethal neurotoxin. It bioaccumulates in the environment, entering food sources that are often crucial to the physical and cultural survival of local people. In 2016, Harvard University conducted the first study to look prospectively at the impacts of Canada’s new dams examining twenty-two under construction or approved. This peer-reviewed study concluded that eleven of the twenty-two dams would expose Indigenous people relying on wild foods for survival to methylmercury at levels exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safe level. As noted, the most toxic of the twenty-two dams studied is Hydro-Quebec’s Romaine 4 dam, due for completion in 2021 and built for export to the U.S.

Harvard University also studied the methylmercury impacts of Nalcor’s Muskrat Falls dam for the Nunatsiavut Government of Inuit on the coast of Labrador, downstream of Churchill Falls. Harvard University and the Independent Expert Advisory Council for Muskrat Falls found  excessive methylmercury levels and recommended mitigation by clearing organic materials prior to flooding land for the dam’s reservoir. Both the government and Nalcor ignored the recommendation and flooded the reservoir in 2019. The controversial Muskrat Falls dam was built despite years of protests, criminal charges, hunger strikes and imprisonment of Indigenous community members and allies in maximum security jails. Hydro-Quebec and Nalcor are in discussions about how to make this power available for export to the U.S. A third dam at Gull Island, three times the size of Muskrat Falls is planned for the Grand River, downstream from Churchill Falls. The power could be shipped through Quebec and exported.

The Canadian hydropower industry and the government dismiss community concerns about methylmercury poisoning of wild food saying that the contamination dissipates over a few decades and in the meantime, people should eat less of the poisoned food. For people in the subarctic North who rely on wild foods for survival, this means go hungry or suffer methylmercury poisoning. Hydro-Quebec has no peer reviewed studies about the impacts of methylmercury study, it does not conduct adequate, routine sampling of all types of wild foods at all its 62 dam sites and has never conducted a peer reviewed  epidemiological study. The Canadian hydropower’s human rights violations, colonialism and methylmercury poisoning make its electricity the “equivalent of blood diamonds from Africa.”  

Human Right Violations

The human rights violations caused by the Canadian hydropower industry are well documented. Amnesty International cites the Canadian government for human rights violations at the Site C dam megadam in British Columbia and called on Manitoba Hydro to respect the rights of Indigenous people at the Keeyask dam where four First Nations recently blockaded the worksite. In 2020, the Canadian Commission of Inquiry report on Nalcor Energy’s Lower Churchill project, the  Muskrat Falls dam, found the government and Nalcor Energy denied the Indigenous community and concerned residents the opportunity for a “meaningful and transparent consultation process” in the siting and construction process.  While the hydropower industry cites “agreements” with local communities, these are often one-sided deals between parties with vastly unequal bargaining power.

 Wa Ni Ska Tan, an alliance of hydro-impacted communities, is documenting the impacts and stories of Indigenous communities. Canadian Senator Mary Jane McCallum is seeking an investigation by the Canadian auditor general of the cumulative impacts of decades of extreme energy extraction including hydropower on human rights and the environment and the social and environmental injustices borne by front line communities, particularly Indigenous people.

Indigenous community members have described Hydro-Quebec’s negative impacts on ancestral lands and traditional practices in regulatory proceedings in the U.S., describing hydropower operations that continue to destroy ancestral graves, lands and the subsistence resources upon which they depend for their cultural identity, livelihoods and way of life. The industry faces claims of violations of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Most Aboriginal people do not view Canadian hydropower as clean or renewable given the environmental and human rights violations associated with the industries’ practices.

Canadian government subsidies for the hydropower industry that undermine U.S. renewable energy 

The Canadian hydropower industry consists of state owned monopolies or “crown corporations” in each province with exclusive rights to dam rivers. Along with mining, oil and gas production, nuclear and forestry, the hydropower industry operates with “relative lack of oversight.” In addition to allowing the industry to operate without transparency and meaningful accountability, the Canadian government provides massive financial subsidies. This in turn stymies U.S. energy innovation and local renewables as well as conservation and efficiency measures. In Canada, multinationals like SNC-Lavalin with close ties to Canadian politicians profit from megadam projects while provincial rate payers and taxpayers bear crushing debt. The dams are a way to funnel public funds to private corporations which profit from construction and engineering fees. In Labrador, the glaring spectacle of Nalcor Energy’s Muskrat Falls megadam with a cost of upwards of $12.7 billion has almost doubled the original price.  The Muskrat Falls Commission of Inquiry issued a scathing report in March 2020 documenting improper if not illegal practices by the industry and government officials. Nonetheless, the province’s 550,000 residents will pay for the Muskrat Falls “boondoggle” and the energy that will be exported out of the province and possibly to the U.S. by Hydro-Quebec. Ironically, near Muskrat Falls on the coast of Labrador about fifteen coastal communities not connected to the grid run on diesel generators. Indigenous community members and their allies who attempted to have their voices heard on Muskrat Falls were charged criminally, subject to excessive police force and elders were imprisoned in maximum security prison.

The Northeast U.S. already imports significant amounts of this subsidized Canadian hydroelectricity. U.S. exports are critical to the Canadian government’s hydropower industry profits. Quebec has been exporting hydropower to the U.S. since 1915. The Quebec Government, through its agent Hydro-Quebec generates 27% of its sales from U.S exports worth $100 million to the province Premier Legault wants to make Quebec the battery of North America and visits U.S. governors regularly to promote Hydro-Quebec.

U.S. transmission corridors for new dams

Hydro-Quebec’s strategic plan depends on building new dams. The Quebec Government spends large sums of money to lobby politicians, regulators and groups in an effort to gain support for transmission corridors.  

In 2018, Massachusetts signed a contract to import 1,200 megawatts from Hydro-Quebec to add to existing imports, over the objections of the state’s attorney general who challenged Hydro-Quebec’s clean energy claims, among other things. The misleadingly named “New England Clean Energy Connect” (NECEC) corridor will cut a 145-mile swarth through the heart of Maine and is opposed by a majority of Maine residents. An earlier proposal, the Northern Pass, failed to obtain state regulatory approval in New Hampshire. An expert report shows how NECEC has been greenwashed and its climate benefits do not exist.  The same is true of the proposed corridor to New York.

The private equity and hedge fund firm Blackstone proposes two more corridors, one for Boston and one for New York City. Both will go under Lake Champlain, several rivers and over land. The Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE) will cost $3 billion and run 333 miles from the Quebec border to New York City.  It was proposed in 2010, not coincidentally, at the same time Hydro-Quebec started building its massive and controversial Romaine River dams. Blackstone’s  New England Clean Power Link (NECPL) through Vermont to Boston will cost $1.6 billion and may replace the Maine NECEC corridor if it is defeated by voter referendum in November 2020.  

New York City’s Mayor DeBlasio announced support for CHPE  on Earth Day 2019  — a bad idea according to environmental and social justice groups. The Mayor wants to make Hydro-Quebec electricity available for city landlords to “offset” their greenhouse gas emissions – a greenwashing scheme violating climate policy and offset standards. On May 26, 2020, Governor Cuomo promoted the New York corridor as a way to restart the economy post-COVID. 

Vermont, calling itself green, qualifies Canadian hydropower as renewable, providing ratepayer and taxpayer subsidies while disregarding environmental destruction, cultural genocide and the true climate impacts of Canadian hydropower. Vermont exacerbates the problem by false carbon accounting, ignoring hydropower emissions in its greenhouse gas inventory.

Hydro-Quebec’s false claims of “surplus” power

Hydro-Quebec falsely claims it has “excess” and “surplus” – claiming there is water flowing over its existing dams and does not need to build new dams for export. This is false and a desperate attempt to avoid public criticism of the ongoing and future damage caused by its hydropower operations. Hydro-Quebec’s Romaine River dams now under construction are being built for export. They would never be allowed in the U.S. due to their human, economic and environmental costs. Instead of building new dams, the U.S. is removing them: Maine’s Edwards Dam removal in the 1990s started a nationwide trend. Hydro-Quebec seeks to cover up the fact that it is building new dams for export to look good in the eyes of U.S. politicians and consumers. This misrepresentation was a major factor leading the Hudson Riverkeeper to withdraw support for the CHPE corridor in November 2019.  

Voices of the Canadian megadam resistance

When front-line voices of resistance to Canadian hydropower are 1,200 miles away from Boston and New York it is hard to appreciate the “profound anger, dismay and sadness” these communities experience every day due to this destructive form of energy production. The people most directly impacted are usually small remote communities of a few thousand people.   Often, they speak only their Indigenous language, lack basic health care, reliable internet and clean running water. Many of them are already disproportionately impacted by climate change due to the rising temperatures that cause the loss of sea ice and frozen rivers that are used for travel to hunt and fish. In Rigolet, an Indigenous settlement on the coast of Labrador, methylmercury poisoning from the Churchill River dams combined with the loss of sea ice used for hunting, fishing and trapping means lost food supplies and cultural identity.  

These front line communities bear double the burden of the climate crisis: their livelihoods are undermined by rising temperatures and they are asked to sacrifice so New York and Boston can have “clean” energy. These frontline and Indigenous voices should be at the center, not on the margins, of the discussion about using Canadian hydropower to meet “clean renewable energy” goals in the U.S. 

Energy production that perpetuates a legacy of colonialism, racism, discrimination and the violent destruction of the environment is unacceptable. Blackstone and every other financier must cancel plans to invest in transmission corridors to import this power to New York and Boston and other U.S. cities. Canadian hydropower is not a climate solution and must be explicitly excluded from  Green New Deal and renewable energy plans. 

The author, Meg Sheehan is a lawyer and coordinator of North American Megadam Resistance Alliance, a network of groups and individuals protecting rivers and their communities.  Sheehan has over 40 years experience working on environmental campaigns. Sheehan can be reached at coordinator.namra@gmail.com  Www.northeastmegadamresistance.org

Sources:

Canadian hydropower, colonialism and social justice: why importing more hydropower to the U.S. is morally wrong and a climate disaster

Canadian hydropower, colonialism and social justice: why importing more hydropower to the U.S. is morally wrong and a climate disaster

Hydro-Quebec 2019 Securities and Exchange Commission 18-K report, page 25.

Press release: April 14, 2020: Innu Nation Of Canada Opposes Central Maine Power’s Transmission Line Permit: A Significant Source of the Hydro- Power Has Destroyed Innu Territory

Muskrat Falls Inquiry Report, Volume 4, page 2, Chapter 27, March 2020.