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Hydro-Québec’s plans to power New York City reignites historic concerns

BY Patrick Quinn May 8, 2022

Despite Hydro-Québec’s history of environmental devastation and exploitation of Indigenous communities, the crown utility is promoting its growing collaboration with First Nations to promote expansion into markets in the United States.

Hydro-Québec received final approval April 14 to supply about 20% of New York City’s annual electricity needs via the Champlain Hudson Power Express (CHPE) transmission line that would travel 545 km underground from Quebec to the borough of Queens. The Quebec portion of the CHPE will be jointly owned by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, securing the community economic benefits for 40 years. 

“The Champlain Hudson Power Express is a game changer,” Mohawk Council Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer stated in a press release. “We are ensuring Indigenous people have a seat at the table as business partners and have a voice in the overall economy moving forward.”  

With the city under pressure to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, which have provided nearly 90% of its power since a nearby nuclear plant was closed last year, New York is touting hydropower as a clean energy alternative. With permits in place and the support of city and state leaders, the $4 billion CHPE project is seen as the most readily available solution. 

However, the project faces stiff resistance from environmental groups and Canadian Indigenous leaders. Organizations like Sierra Club and Riverkeeper argue the CHPE will squeeze out more energy-efficient local options, dredge up pollutants in the Hudson River and further damage Indigenous communities.  

A coalition of five First Nations – Lac Simon, Kitcisakik and Abitiwinni (Anishnabeg Nation), Wemotaci (Atikamekw Nation) and Pessamit (Innu Nation) – that opposed similar export schemes to Maine and Massachusetts, wrote to New York deputy mayor Dean Fuleihan last May denouncing the project.

“There is a direct relation between the increased demand for electricity and their impact on our traditional activities and rights,” read their letter. “Not a single impact assessment has been carried out for the construction of 33 power stations in our traditional territories, which generate 36% of Hydro-Québec’s total capacity.” 

Activists accuse the power giant of “greenwashing” its environmental impact. Decaying vegetation from dammed rivers causes methane, disrupting the natural carbon cycle, and the harmful neurotoxin methylmercury, which builds up in fish and other wildlife, disproportionately affecting Indigenous people up the food chain. 

“In our eyes, it’s not all that clean,” said one of the coalition’s signatories, Lucien Wabanonik of Lac Simon. “It has major impacts on climate change that they don’t say when they speak to people in the States. We’ve been struggling for some time to at least have some agreements or compensation to help our people live on the land.”

Decades ago, the former Anishnabeg Grand Chief witnessed Lac Simon and other First Nations lands exploited by the corporation without consent or compensation, depriving members of their territory and way of life. While his community continues to rely on diesel generators, the nearby hydro reservoir that flooded their land sends power to consumers in southern Quebec and the United States. 

“They never consulted us first, we were never compensated and don’t have any agreement yet to find solutions,” Wabanonik told the Nation. “There are a lot of things we need to talk about if they want to have an agreement with us. We’re open to real, long-term solutions because at this time we have nothing.”

While the Lac Simon community hasn’t benefited from hydro expansion, the coalition’s “Hydro-Québec Clash” website has stopped being updated because Wemotaci is currently in negotiations with the company. There’s also been less criticism from the Innu Nation since the 200 MW “Apuiat” wind-farm joint project was announced on their territory last year.

Although recently wind projects are presented as win-win for the planet and Indigenous communities, they represent a relatively small proportion of the power necessary to appease the Northeast’s growing energy demands.

Champlain Hudson’s opponents in New York worry that Hydro-Québec’s contract doesn’t commit it to delivering power during winter months, when electricity is most needed for Canadian consumers. This past winter, the company asked people to voluntarily use less electricity during the coldest days when demand was highest. 

With Quebec’s hydro demand expected to grow by 20 TWh by 2029 and 100 TWh by 2050 – half of today’s output – the province isn’t likely to be able to meet peak demand by 2027. Hydro-Québec CEO Sophie Brochu recently admitted that the company hasn’t ruled out building new dams and is already evaluating potential sites. 

“They’ll probably have to make dams or increase capacity of old dams,” speculated Wabanonik. “They asked people to diminish their hydro consumption this winter and now they say they have capacity to sell to the States. Hydro-Québec says two things at the same time – which one is reality?”

Although the New York City contract stipulates that electricity can’t come from new dams and includes provisions requiring consultations with Indigenous communities for construction of new transmission lines or refurbishments that might cause environmental impacts, questions remain about how Hydro-Québec can meet demand without increasing capacity.

Similar concerns contributed to Maine rejecting its transmission-line project in a referendum last November despite a publicity campaign reported to cost $20 million. If Hydro-Québec loses its case in the state’s Supreme Court, it could add more than a half-billion dollars to its existing nearly $50 billion debt. 

A previous Hydro-Québec attempt to sell electricity to New York state was thwarted in the 1990s when a Cree Odeyak was paddled to the Big Apple to oppose the proposed damming of the Great Whale River. In 2019, New York officials toured and consulted with Indigenous communities to avoid repeating history. 

Now, environmental activists in New York say there is still time to organize resistance before the Canada Energy Regulator approves the project.

“Hydro-Québec needs to understand the impact of its structures and that things need to change in many ways,” Wabanonik asserted. “Unity and collaboration among neighbouring First Nations is something that has worked well in the past.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.