It was not surprising that, only weeks after the Vermont legislature voted to close the state’s 40 years old nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee, Vermont’s largest utilities announced that they were in negotiation with the utility giant Hydro Quebec over a new long-term power contract.
For the last thirty years, Vermont’ principal sources of electricity, Vermont Yankee and Hydro Quebec have together supplied two thirds of its electricity. Given that Vermont has made little to no progress in developing home grown sources of energy, and given that the province of Québec has made its electricity exports to the northeastern United States the cornerstone of its economic development policy, this move was to be expected. While the debate over nuclear power has been intense – and it was the opponents who, after years of campaigning, at last won that debate – the debate over Vermont’s reliance on Hydro Quebec has been all but dormant for about a decade or more.
In the early nineties, the Hydro Quebec colossal dam projects inspired passionate volunteer activism and were targeted by high profile campaigns by large, well-funded environmental groups. There was not an environmental group small or large in the northeastern United States that did not take part in support of the Cree who were opposed to any further hydro development on their land. Hydro Quebec had become virtually synonymous with large scale environmental destruction. As a result of public pressure, New York backed out of a long term contract with Hydro Quebec – a contract that was needed to justify the construction of the “project of the century,” the James Bay II project. As a consequence, Hydro Quebec put its planned James Bay development “sur la glace” (“on ice”) and activists celebrated the victory and moved on to other issues.
What was surprising, however, was that the Vermont legislature, in an unanimous vote, agree to change the state’s definition of renewable energy, under pressure from Hydro Quebec. Under Vermont law, only hydroelectric projects under 200 Megawatts (MW) were eligible for renewable status. Lawmakers asserted that Vermont would get a better deal in the new contract if it agreed to make the change; the Chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) went so far as to say the contract would be “in jeopardy” without the change. Lawmakers agreed to take a narrow legalistic view of the statue, and to ignore the spirit of the law, which was intended to spur the development of small renewable energy projects. “It’s bad for local renewable-energy generation, bad for jobs in Vermont. It undercuts that marketplace,” said Jake Brown of Vermont Natural Resources Council, which opposed the move.[i]
This is a public relations coup for Hydro Quebec, which can now aggressively market its power around the northeastern United States, having a green stamp of approval from the greenest state in the union. But this is not the first time that Vermont has helped Hydro Quebec to peddle its energy to other New England states.
What was also surprising is the degree of amnesia that has set in around this issue. No one seems to recall what a bad deal the Hydro Quebec contract was for Vermont for many years. Or that the Public Service Board ruled that the decision to enter into the contract prematurely, was “imprudent” -- it had been revealed that the utilities locked into the contract before a decision was required to pre-empt the mounting public opposition. When Vermont utilities were negotiating a long term contract with Hydro Quebec in the late eighties and early nineties, critics of the contract maintained that a 30 year commitment to large power purchases from the utility giant would burden the state with an energy surplus that would discourage the development of energy conservation measures and alternative technologies, and would stifle Vermont’s economy. Almost as soon as the ink was dry, the predictions proved true: energy conservation programs were cut, and electric rates went up. The decision to import power from Hydro Quebec was costing Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) alone $48 million a year in excess energy costs. Every year throughout the nineties, utilities filed for rate increases that were attributed to the costs of the contract. Vermont utilities were obligated to buy power that was not needed and much of it was sent back to Quebec at a loss. The state’s second largest utility, Green Mountain Power (GMP) even proposed, as a means of unloading its surplus, a plan to offer reduced rates to customers for increasing their electric consumption. The Department of Public Service publicly applauded this proposal, even though it flew in the face of conservation objectives.
In 1997 GMP agreed to sell Hydro Quebec power to other states in exchange for price reductions. In a campaign of shameless corporate greenwashing, Hydro Quebec, GMP and Norevco of Canada formed a partnership called Green Mountain Energy Partners, which went to work marketing power for Hydro Quebec in New Hampshire, the first New England state to deregulate its electric utilities. In a time when the name Hydro Quebec evoked images of drowned caribou and tiny Cree communities living in the shadows of the largest dams in the world, GMP was offering spruce tree seedlings and “eco credits” to potential customers, claiming that the power comes from “non-polluting” sources, without, however, revealing that the power was coming from Hydro Quebec.
Once again proponents of Hydro Quebec imports argue that hydroelectric power is “better than nuclear” and that it is "non-polluting" and "carbon free." Quebec has positioned itself, in the words of Environment Minister Claude Béchard, “at the forefront of the fight against climate change.” While it may be true that there are no smokestacks or tailpipes spewing carbon dioxide, the creation of large reservoirs produces methane, which is twenty times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas (though it is not as long lasting in the atmosphere). It has been estimated that worldwide, large dams are responsible for the equivalent of 7.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually – that is higher than the carbon dioxide emissions from all the fossil fuel burning in the United States. Studies have show that dams in tropical climates can have greenhouse gas emissions up to 26 times higher than equivalent coal burning plants. While methane emissions from dams in temperate climate is not as well studied, studies have shown that large hydro plants in Canada and in Finland contribute as much to climate change as coal plants that produce a comparable amount of electricity.[ii]
Hydro Quebec is also waging a major assault on the boreal forests, which are an important storehouse for carbon and the decline of these forests, through logging, flooding and burning is lighting the fuse on a carbon bomb. This decline of the boreal forest is one of the many climate feedbacks that are underway as the climate becomes more unstable – hotter weather causes more forest fires, which lead to more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which lead to more fires, and so on. Only last month smoke from fifty forest fires raging north of Montreal could be seen from as far away as Boston and Cape Cod – fires that were attributed to unseasonably dry and hot weather – a dangerous sign of this unraveling.[iii]
Even the city of Burlington, which took the issue of Hydro Quebec imports to the voters in 1990, has reversed its ban on buying power from Hydro Quebec. (It did not, however, take this decision to the voters.) What has changed? The dam construction that was so onerous to the public in the early nineties, has not stopped. The province of Quebec (population 7.5 million) is the largest producer of hydropower in the world and has the highest per capita electric use in the world, is continuing to expand its hydroelectric capacity on a massive scale. Hydro Quebec has 23 proposed hydroelectric projects, and so long as it has markets, it intends to build them. While Hydro Quebec put its project of the century “on ice,” it was not canceled. If completed, the James Bay project, as proposed, would have meant that every major river flowing into James Bay –which altogether drains an area the size of France-- save one, would have been diverted, dammed or flooded. Altogether the James Bay hydro complex would have generated 27,000 MW of electricity– the equivalent of 35 nuclear power plants. Though Hydro Quebec backed away from this more ambitious proposal, which was a magnet for criticism just by virtue of its scale -- it has proceeded, dam by dam and river by river, to expand upon the existing James Bay hydroelectric complex. The newest addition to this complex is the 900 MW Eastmain projects, which consists of four major dams and 74 dikes, and the diversion of three rivers -- Rupert, Lemare, and Nemaska -- into the exiting Eastmain reservoir.
Also in the works is the 1,500 MW Romaine project– which has been ranked as the largest construction project in all of Canada (the Eastmain project is number two). Hydro Quebec has concluded its environmental assessment process for the project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020. The Romaine is one of the last free flowing Atlantic salmon rivers on the north shore of the St Lawrence (most of the others have been dammed by Hydro Quebec), which will be turned into a series of four reservoirs with four hydroelectric stations. The government has given Hydro Quebec a series of guidelines for minimizing the environmental damage, but it is not legally bound by them. Proposed mitigation measures include building nesting platforms for the birds –97,000 nesting pairs were counted—that live in the forests that will be submerged beneath the Romaine reservoirs. Hydro Quebec also proposes to create artificial spawning beds in the hopes that the salmon will use them, although this is a highly experimental and untested solution, and it is more than likely to fail, just like every other mitigation measure that has been tried to prevent the decline of salmon where their habitat has been destroyed by dams.
It may be that we have been so absorbed by the horrors of nuclear power and fossil fuels that large dams can seem benign to us, when ten or twenty years ago they were not. But nothing—barring climate change– has altered the face of the planet more than large dams. Worldwide, they have displaced hundreds of millions of people, and have devastated the most biologically fertile areas on earth; they have caused coastlines to fall into the sea, and have led to the extinction or demise or innumerable species; they have caused earthquakes (geologists believe that the earthquake that hit China in 2008 and killed eighty thousand people was caused by the weight of large reservoirs[iv]); they have turned clean, fresh river water into stagnant pools of deoxygenated, pesticide-laced water that is toxic to fish, to birds, and to human beings. Because dams are typically built in remote areas, indigenous people are the first to be affected: they lose the forests and the wildlife they depend upon, their water is poisoned, sacred sites are destroyed, and they are subject to an influx of roads and the associated cultural degradations that come with them. This is what has happened to the Cree and the Innu, and it is why they have signed agreements with Hydro Quebec—they will at least be compensated for the loss of their way of life and they are determined to reclaim their dignity.
“In the last 25 years,” writes Boyce Richardson, author of a 1976 book on the impacts of the James Bay project on the Cree, Strangers Devour the Land,
The Crees have lived an almost unimaginable experience. In this short time they have been forced by the arrival among them of thousands of workers, roads, airports, huge industrial enterprises and the baggage these things trail with them, to undergo an acculturation that has normally occupied other societies for hundreds of years. They have been force-fed into Western values, whether they liked it or not.[v]
I think what we have forgotten, goes even deeper than this. We have forgotten what the planet was like. Who remembers the passenger pigeon? The oceans teeming with fish? The millions of whales that patrolled the seas, the reefs as abundant as tropical forests? Who remembers the sixty pound salmon, and the cathedral sized trees? Who will remember that there were once thousands of species of frogs – glass frogs and robbers frogs and golden frogs and spike-nosed frogs, or that the polar bears once lived in the wild? Or that only fifty years ago, the Cree and the Innu still lived off the land, freely and without dependencies on governments or food corporations or energy imports, following the rivers, the salmon, the geese and the caribou? That they traveled hundreds of miles by foot, by snowshoe and toboggan, with no more provisions than a bag of flour, in some of the harshest weather in the world?
The world has changed—as Bill McKibben says, we ought to give the earth a new name. This is not the planet it once was – before we changed the climate, before we dammed the rivers, cleared the forests and mined the seas. In a world of mountain top removal and tar sands extraction, of melting ice caps and unstoppable oil spills in the bottom of the ocean, of toxic blobs growing in the seas; in a world of peak oil (the EIA has at last confirmed this) – to talk about shorebirds and wildlife habitat and the degradations of indigenous cultures, does not register the same level of alarm. Who will be concerned about the sediments that fail to flow into the sea to nourish the coastal fisheries, when there are no more coastal fisheries? Who will be concerned about the salmon and the caribou who are dying from a thousand causes other than from dams?
In Vermont we like to boast that we are the lowest carbon emitter in the union, that we rate the highest for energy efficiency. More shamefully, our energy use has gone up by thirty-three percent since 1990, our electric use by twenty-five percent. The truth is that we export the consequences of our energy use – we rely on imported petroleum for 50% of our energy use and imports from Quebec for one third of our electricity. In other words, we are content to export the pollution associated with our energy use. We are fiercely opposed to hosting a dangerous nuclear plant here at home, but we are shamefully indifferent about our oil dependency or about our electricity imports from the north.
Vermont’s new energy bill, which represents the legislature’s best efforts to promote clean energy, will do next to nothing to change the energy paradigm. Favorable rates for a few large dairy farms (heavily dependent on fossil fuels and themselves heavily polluting) to sell “cow power;” changes in how tax credits are funded for solar energy; allowance for the Vermont National Guard (possibly the largest single source of greenhouses gases in the state) to sell energy from its show-and-tell solar project—these are the highlights of Vermont’s new energy bill. If this is the best that could be done by the greenest state in the union then we should all be seriously depressed about the future.
Ten or twenty years ago, Vermont legislators may have been committed to developing renewable sources of energy. Our focus then, as now, should have been on negawatts – that is, on ways to save energy, rather than to engage in debates about which is worse, nuclear power or fossil fuels or large dams. If we are truly going to reduce our impact on the planet, then we will have to scale down our energy use – the laws of thermodynamics tell us that. All energy use has a consequence, and the chaos and destructiveness we see all around us – from toxic reservoirs to slag heaps to clearcuts to climate chaos – is the consequence of all the energy we have used, mostly in the last few decades of human history. Our mistake has been to think that some energy sources are better than others, and that we only need to find – in an imperfect world – those “clean” sources of energy. That was the search for the pot at the end of the rainbow.
When the Cree chief Matthew Coon Combe visited Vermont in the early nineties, and made the trip from Burlington to Montpelier, he was reported to have commented on the beauty of the Winooski river valley, and to have remarked, “What a great place for a dam.” To suggest that we would submerge the Winooski river valley – its fertile soils, its farms, its towns, its historic and cultural legacy – in the creation of a vast reservoir for the production of electricity, would be unthinkable.
In the mid nineties, I visited several of the Innu communities on the north shore who live at the mouths of rivers that flow into the Gulf of St Lawrence, which one by one have been dammed by Hydro Quebec over the last few decades. These were all Atlantic salmon rivers, and where the rivers have been dammed, the salmon are no more. Where the Innu live in the shadow of dams, they live beside pulp mills and aluminum smelters and their forests have been cleared. The road into the north stops where the dams stop; now the road will punch deeper into the north and yet another free flowing salmon river will be dammed.
That this river should be sacrificed in order to feed our insatiable appetite for energy should be unthinkable to us, too.
Alexis Lathem is the former editor of Nitassinan News, the newsletter of Friends of Nitassinan (1994-1998), a support group for the Innu people in their defense against industrial intrusions on their land. A freelance writer and award-winning poet, she is the author of the poetry chapbook, Crossing Labrador (Pudding House Chapbook series.)
Photo from Wikipedia
[i] VPIRG, the state’s largest pubic advocacy group, which took a leading role in the campaign to shut down Vermont Yankee, has been altogether silent about the issue.
[ii] Some studies on greenhouse gases from reservoirs:
St. Louis, V.L. et al. (2000) “Reservoir Surfaces as Sources of Greenhouse Gases to the Atmosphere: A global estimate”, BioScience 50:9.
Soumis, N. et al. (2004) “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Reservoirs of the Western United States”, Global Biogeochemical Cycles 18.
Rudd, J.W.M. et al. (1993) “Are Hydroelectric Reservoirs Significant Sources of Greenhouse Gases?” Ambio 22:4.
Ivan B.T. Lima et al. (2007) "Methane Emissions from Large Dams as Renewable
Energy Resources: A Developing Nation Perspective," Mitigation and Adaptation
Strategies for Global Change, published on-line March 2007.
[iii] The close relationship between dam construction and logging operations is well illustrated by the case of Hydro Quebec’s SM3 project, which opened up forests that were previously inaccessible to logging. In 1994 the Port Cartier mill, closed since 1991, was reopened as soon as the forests were cleared in preparation for the flooding of the St. Marguerite river valley. The newly accessible areas were parceled out to a Montreal timber company, Uniforet, in the largest forestry accession in Quebec’s history.
[iv] A Link Between Dams and Earthquakes? http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/science/2009/02/03/a-link-between-dams-and-earthquakes/
[v] Boyce Richardson, “25 Years of Force-fed Acculturation.” http://www.ottertooth.com/Reports/Rupert/News/rupert-surrender2.htm