Tuesday 20 April 2010

Bipole Disorder: Billion dollar insurance policy

Writing about the Bipole III debacle is like banging my head against the wall. People should be outraged about the apparent colossal waste of money, but instead the general public just yawns: "Oh there goes the silly government again, wasting money. Nothing new there."

Even though I know my efforts are futile, I still can't let it go. I had to try to find out more from our government about why they chose the much costlier and wasteful west side route. So, on goes my helmet ...

I spoke to an MLA and to a senior staffer in the department responsible for Manitoba Hydro. They essentially confirmed what I knew all along: that the UNESCO Heritage thing is just a red herring. It's a catchy and easily-consumable hunk of bull shit that they could toss out there instead of the dry, unpalatable truth. Not their exact words, but nor did they pretend that it was an important factor.

An important factor is the licensing process. This process includes a scoping statement and environmental impact assessment (the later not yet complete) followed by a one year period during which interested parties and communities can intervene. This is where the fun begins. Now, the people I talked to didn't actually say "we don't want to negotiate with the Indians" but it was made clear that doing so was expected to be an ordeal. That is understandable. Though some First Nations communities on the east side of the province supported the project, dealing with those that did not could certainly be painful. We know, for example, that the Hollow Water community can be a first class pain in the ass when it wants to be, and you can bet they're one of the communities opposing the project.

In addition, the government says it has a concern about opposition in the U.S. to the east-side route. Not from just one group, but from a coalition of interest groups including environmental groups, local power producers (imagine that, eh?) and others. It's not really about the trees though. It's an emotional issue. The transmission routing study on the Hydro web site refers at different points to the area east of Lake Winnipeg as an "upscale address" that has "emotional appeal" and could be a "cause celebre" should the opposition gain momentum. According to my government buddy, the combination of all of these factors that I cannot seem to type without using "quotation marks" threatens to elevate the opposition to the east side route from mere annoyance to something much bigger.

So strong is this opposition, says the government, that it not only threatens to derail future power sales to Minnesota, but all power sales to the U.S.. These groups are apparently just fine with the west side route, thus the additional cost of the west side route can be considered "insurance" for our exports. A $600 million insurance policy with annual payments in the tens of millions of dollars. This, I am told, is one of the major factors in selecting the west side route.
You would figure that a united coalition so strong as to threaten billions of dollars in exports of clean energy between two nations might warrant a story in a newspaper or something. So would I, so I ran some searches of the five highest circulation Minnesota newspapers (Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Rochester Post Bulletin, Duluth News Tribune, Southwest Journal) and came up with no relevant reference to Manitoba Hydro at all. How do you alter government policy without getting your word out to the public? Maybe this coalition is a covert black-ops kind of opposition, where men in trench coats smoking cigarattes approach Minnesota politicians in empty parking garages and make veiled threats about buying power that requires pine trees in Canada to be cut down.
Let's consider the supposed opposition from environmental groups for a second. What environmental group would endorse a solution that would cause somewhere between 30-70 mW of electricity to be wasted? Enough power to light the city of Brandon, vanished into thin air in the form of heat from line losses, just to save a few trees? What about the scarce Boreal Plains ecozone on the west side that the transmission routing study says demands greater protection than the vast forest on the east side? What about the fragile Saskatchewan River Delta and other "Areas of Special Interest" on the west side that are not adequately protected?

So it amounts to this: If there is opposition from environmental groups, then that opposition has it's foundation in ignorance. Ignorance of the true environmental pros and cons of the two routing options. This is something that can easily be combated: "Hey, you in the hemp shirt with the granola bar. did you know that you're advocating the waste of 50mW of CLEAN electricity?"
Such granola-crunchers may be found in an organization called NRDC. This is not a Minnesota group. It is a large organization that opposes development of various ecosystems all over the western hemisphere, and like to interview native elders who say such things as "There's a big spruce tree that fell down in one of our rivers many years ago. And it's still there. Nobody's ever moved it." They have also interviewed Robert Kennedy about our forest, but if you read the related articles on their site there is concern about flooding, forestry and mining, but very little mention of transmission.

I am convinced that most environmental groups in the U.S. don't give a shit where we put our line, as long as they can buy our green energy. There is one exception: an organization called Fresh Energy. Fresh Energy is a non-profit organization that feigns environmental stewardship, but is a lobbying organization for certain Minnesota energy producers. It opposes exports from MB Hydro in general, according to the routing study, although it is very doubtful that they have the clout to actually stop those exports. However, the thinking is that disputes with native communities over east-side routing could give them additional ammunition, which brings us back to issue #1: navigating the hostile First Nations.

Yes, but let's also consider the difficulties negotiating the west side route: There are still First Nations Communities that need to be dealt with, but also farmers. Ukrainian farmers. (I have no idea what that's supposed to mean.) The point is, there is a great deal of territory that needs to be navigated including flood zones, parklands, and farms. Many many many farms. About that: Apparently* Hydro is committed to certain limitations in setting it's route through this farmland, including
1. Hydro will not expropriate any land. It will negotiate all settlements with the land owners.
2. Hydro will not run the line within 600m of any residence.
3. Hydro will not run the line diagonally across any farmland. Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, I do know what diagonal means.

I have input these limitations into an advanced computer model to simulate what the Bipole III route might look like on the west side of the province:

Who knows how much this will really cost and how much longer the line really will be when all is said and done. Why would Hydro, which is billions of dollars in debt already, incur all of this additional cost and hardship, rather than taking their lumps with the first nations communities (which they have experience with) thereby saving a freighter-load of money? A: They wouldn't. However, because this issue is so important to Manitobans, the Manitoba government took an "advisory role" in the process during which they advised Hydro to leave the east side alone. Why is this issue so important to Manitobans? Beacuse if the "coalition of environmentalists" in the U.S. (a.k.a. Fresh Energy/NRDC) causes all of our electricity export contracts to vanish, then the province will take a huge economic hit. We just can't take that risk, so it was critical that the province step in and direct Hydro on what to do. This is what I am told, anyhow.

Plus, Resource Management Areas (RMAs) are a provincial responsibility. These are arrangements whereby affected parties are consulted about development. However, they have to be managed properly, otherwise "rather than reducing conflict, these arrangements can create tensions whereby the government states that the relationship is one of consultation but in effect grants a right of consent to each First Nation."(pg16) In other words, there is work involved on the part of the provincial government to stick-handle the talks with the First Nations correctly. This requires effort, diligence, and intelligence. If the provincial government is unwilling to undertake these negotiations than perhaps they are lacking in one of those three areas.

What's the conclusion? I have seriously spent too much time on this and have to get back to my regular schedule of downloading anime porn. Also, I am not buying the idea that NRDC or any other environmental group would or could block Hydro exports to the U.S. -- a prospect that the routing study call "highly speculative" -- and I certainly don't agree with paying a billion dollars to guard against it. I think the real issue here is the willingness or the ability of the province to deal with the First Nations in a fair but firm manner, and to take a stand if necessary (as it likely will be). As always with this government, if there is a choice between making a tough decision or spending money, the choice will always be to spend money.


by the way, Hydro, thanks for the second bag of light bulbs. Is this going to be a weekly delivery? I probably shouldn't tell you this, but I can afford to buy my own bulbs.


*as discussed by Hydro personnel at recent open houses in Western MB.

h/t Mike Waddell


the Stiff Rod said...

How the hell did you manage to get free bulbs? I smell a conspiracy afoot here!

AC/DC .....hehehehehe

cherenkov said...

You have to live in the suburbs to get them, DG. If I get any more I'll send them over to you. I'm running out of shelf space.

Anonymous said...

Cheren, am as disgusted as you are but to add insult to injury, council is now spinning that the old stadium needs 50 Million dollars in refurbishments.

Like Bipole, where do they get this stuff, and why do they insist on spinning it.

But more importtantly , why are they allowed to get away with the deceit.

unclebob said...

You may want to look at Ms Wows latest pronouncements which shed new light on the rational
There is a time issue which plays into the secret contractual commitments that nobody wants to talk about

Anonymous said...

I'm at the point where I'd rather see Manitoba build a natural-gas fired power plant or two rather than squander billions on these dams. I'm no granola head but the whole northern dam fiasco in Manitoba over the decades is a disaster. It's pretty much ruined the water systems of this province. Dams are too expensive and don't produce enough power for the cost.

cherenkov said...

@ Bob: Sounds intriguing. Where can Ms Wow's pronouncements? The clock is certainly ticking, but they will probably come down to the wire with either route.

@ Anon: Hydro is a valuable resource if it's properly managed.

Anonymous said...

Cherenkov, just think -- build only gas-fired power plants and no negotiations with First Nations, far fewer lawyers cashing in, no mega-lawsuits in a few decades from people claiming their traditional lands are harmed etc. Lots of electricity, cheap price, and no negotiations, payouts and apologies to anyone ever. It's win-win.

cherenkov said...

Some of those costs of doing business can be mitigated with effective leadership. Definitely First Nations that are impacted should be compensated, but within reason. The government does not need to be held over a barrel by a First Nation that claims that some distant crown land is part of their traditional territory. We need to get a handle on the distinction between entitlement and the courtesy of consultation. There is room to bend, but if you bend too far then you fall into a pit that you can't get out of.

unclebob said...

chery one
It was at the NDP convention and I was the only media there - reported on Marty's show - call me if you want

Alex Hemsky said...

anon - 2 natural gas plants have been built/converted in the last 10 years. Neither runs because of fuel costs.

Anonymous said...

The plants don't run because the hydro is cheaper right now. But the billions spent to build the dams, plus the endless long-term costs associated with lawsuits, land claims, politics, it never ends. Apparently Manitoba is set to need more electricity. Build the gas-fired plants and they will eventually be used -- with a lot less long-term trouble.

Anonymous said...

Is this the Boreal foprest you are talking about ....seems like it stretches acroos the country....but whaddaIno.


cherenkov said...

That's the one: three million square kilometres. "The lungs of the planet". It could all be destroyed by a hydro line.

/* Google Tracker Code