FROM CANADA TO THE COMMONWEALTH: HYDRO-QUEBEC’S CONTROVERSIAL NORTHERN PASS PROJECT
By Jamie Garuti, Communications Manager
One year ago, Massachusetts passed H.4568, An Act Relative to Energy Diversity. The legislation authorized the procurement of hydropower and requires utilities to solicit and contract for 1,200 megawatts of clean energy generation. In the months following, Eversource Energy helped the Department of Energy Resources craft the Request for Proposals to meet the requirement, and included provisions that will likely encourage use of large scale hydropower.
The most probable winner of the energy contract will be Hydro-Québec, a crown corporation owned by the Québec government. Eversource is currently partnering with Hydro-Québec in an effort to bring Canadian hydropower through New Hampshire to Massachusetts and Connecticut via a proposed transmission line called Northern Pass. The project has been highly controversial, opposed by 30 of the 31 communities along the transmission line’s route.
Route and impact of the Northern Pass
Opponents say that the entire project, from it’s origin in Canada to it’s end point in Deerfield, NH, threatens both people and wildlife. The Pessamit Innu First Nation, who have lived on the Betsiamites River for millennia, say that if the project is carried out, the salmon in the river will be extinct within a few years.
In New Hampshire the route cuts through the White Mountains National Forest, the Pondicherry division of Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, multiple wetlands, private conservation lands, and other fragile areas. New Hampshire residents worry that the project will have negative economic impacts by decreasing property values, destroying potential agricultural lands, and increasing dependence on foreign energy.
If Massachusetts purchases the energy, we too are at risk of maintaining dependence on imported energy, as low-cost Canadian power crowds out wind, solar, and other clean energy technology in New England. Currently, small renewable energy businesses are providing jobs and opportunities to communities across the state. If we invest in and promote the local clean energy economy, those opportunities will continue to expand. However, incentives to develop local alternative energy sources would vanish with large scale hydro, especially since the imported hydropower would count toward renewable requirements. Although large scale hydro might be cheaper for utilities, New England residents would end up paying above market prices. Ultimately, Massachusetts would miss out on the in-state opportunities that the rapidly growing renewable energy sector present. Imported large scale hydropower could decidedly hamper our market for home-grown renewables and local jobs.
Current project status
Northern Pass is currently undergoing a series of adjudicative hearings, with 19 full days of hearings thus far. The Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) must decide by September 30th whether or not to approve Eversource/Northern Pass’ application to build the transmission line.
Despite their substantial stake in the matter, the Pessamit Innu tribe was denied intervenor status to fight the project. Unable to make their voice heard in Canada, a group of tribal elders traveled to the United States this week to meet with political leaders, media, and New Hampshire and Massachusetts residents.
Chief Rene Simon and several elders spoke for three minutes to the SEC on Thursday, explaining the ways Hydro-Québec has violated Pessamit rights and devastated their economy and the ecosystem. Earlier in the week, they came to Boston to meet with Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, as well as deliver public presentations (you can view the presentation here).
Their story extends much further back than Eversource and Hydro-Québec’s Northern Pass proposal, and is just one instance of the deep harm that large scale hydropower companies have committed against communities and ecosystems. For the Pessamit Innu and Hydro-Québec, the struggle spans more than half a century.
An ugly history
In the 1950s, Hydro-Québec built a dam on a river owned by the Pessamit Innu First Nation. At the time, the Canadian government did not recognize the rights of the Pessamit, despite their 8,000 year presence on the land. Over the next five decades, Hydro-Québec continued to build dams and push the Pessamit out of their ancestral territory, simultaneously destroying land and animal populations. Below is a summary of these impacts, as described by Pessamit leaders.
- Wildly fluctuating water levels induced by the dams eroded river banks, filling the water with debris and regularly flooding the surrounding territory
- Fish populations, especially salmon, drastically declined due to river blockages, and fluctuating water levels and river speeds
- Beaver, otter, and mink populations were decimated due to these changes
- Recent studies have found dams release significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere due to rotting vegetation in water, contributing to climate change
- Once arable land was now flooded, preventing the Pessamit from growing and selling food
- Hunting and trapping animals like mink, once profitable activities, were no longer possible
- Fluctuating river speeds and water levels combined with heavy debris made fishing dangerous, taking away another key pillar of the Pessamit economy
- The Québec government pressured the community to relocate, giving them allowances if they moved onto a reservation, and denying allowances to families who wished to stay on their traditional territory.
- Forced to live off of government handouts rather than traditional economic activities, unemployment rates soared. The Pessamit Innu reservation now has a 47.5% unemployment rate, compared to the 7.2% unemployment rate of Québec.
- The Pessamit Innu identity was largely tied to their ancestral land, which they were forced to leave
- Traditional hunting, trapping and fishing activities are no longer possible
- They now have limited access to traditional food sources like salmon
- Poor job prospects and loss of culture have caused depression rates to skyrocket. For community members under 25 years old, the suicide rate is five times higher than the same demographic of Canadians
When looking at energy projects, it is important to take a holistic view when evaluating potential impacts. Indigenous communities have repeatedly been forced out of their traditional land due to large scale hydropower, which in turn damaged economies, traditions, and ecosystems.
In a time when investment in clean energy solutions is desperately needed, hydropower projects like Northern Pass may be tempting. However, to move everyone forward, we must invest in a diversity of clean, local energy sources that work for both people and planet.
If you want to take action, you can check out the No Northern Pass coalition, or contact Governor Baker and Environmental Secretary Matt Beaton to let them know that Northern Pass is bad for Massachusetts.
Jamie Garuti is the Communications Manager at Climate Action Business Association. She graduated from Tulane University with a degree in Environmental Studies. Previously, she led a fossil fuel divestment campaign, worked with the leadership development program Climate Summer, and organized in local movements and campaigns for climate justice.