Thursday, March 22, 2012

Controversy swirls over Canadian plan to build vast new hydroelectric plant in Labrador

(For more on this project and Canada's plan to build multiple dams to
sell electricity to the US, see this article in the latest edition of
World Rivers Review:

Controversy swirls over Canadian plan to build vast new hydroelectric
plant in Labrador

Published 22 March, 2012 11:13:00 PRI's The World

As Canada confronts its need for electricity and a desire to reduce
the amount of carbon it pumps into the atmosphere, it's turning to
two, large hydroelectric dams in Labrador. But there's potential for
other environmental damage that has many in the area saying "no thanks."
There�s no maintained trail to Muskrat Falls, just a steep, slippery
path worn down by visitors and crossed by roots and fallen trees.
It ends on gigantic rocks that jut out over the impressive falls that
cross the breadth of the Churchill River. The Churchill is a powerful
river that runs more than 500 miles through the largely untouched
forests of Labrador, in far northeastern Canada. The interior feels
about as far as you can get from just about anywhere, but it�s at the
center of the ambitions of the government of the province of
Newfoundland and Labrador, which includes this huge part of the
Canadian mainland as well as the large island just to the east.

There�s already one big hydroelectric dam on the Churchill a couple of
hundred miles northwest of here, and now the province�s energy
authority, NALCOR, plans to build two more, including one at Muskrat

The two lower Churchill dams together would produce over 3,000
megawatts of power, as much as 13 average coal-fired power plants.
Gilbert Bennett, a project manager for NALCOR, said the project is the
largest single hydroelectric development currently under consideration
in North America.

�From our perspective, it�s the cornerstone of our province�s energy
plan,� Bennett said.

Some of the power from the project would flow east to the province�s
population centers on the island of Newfoundland. But even there, the
population is pretty small. So after the province takes its share, it
would sell the rest of the power to other parts of eastern Canada and
the northeastern United States.

The project would bring badly needed jobs and income to this remote
and sparsely-populated province. But many locals say they want none of

�These guys have got tunnel vision and no concern for Labrador,� said
Alex Saunders, a native Inuit whose family was one of the first to
settle in the region of Muskrat Falls. Saunders now lives in
Labrador�s hub, a town of about 7,500 people called Happy Valley-Goose
Bay. He and other opponents say the project will disrupt water levels
below the dam and flood and pollute the river valley above it.

Saunders was recently in the hospital with chest pains, but he got
energized talking about the project. He said people on the island of
Newfoundland and elsewhere would get most of the benefits, while
Labrador would bear all of the costs.

�If the Newfoundland government wants to produce hydropower,� he said,
�why don�t they do in on the island of Newfoundland? And if the United
States wants to buy power, why don�t they develop their own power? Why
are they coming to us?�

Some of the potential customers for the electricity are asking the
same questions. New York State could receive a chunk of the renewable
power from the project, but some environmental groups there are
opposed to it. The state�s chapter of the Sierra Club said it would
continue the region�s reliance on huge, concentrated and remote energy
production rather than local, renewable resources like wind and solar,
that can be produced on-site.

But some experts say those new energy sources can�t yet meet the
region�s big appetite for electricity.

�It would be nice to have distributed power and have everyone�s house
generating all the electricity we would need,� said Peter Wilcoxen,
the Director of the Center for Environmental Policy at Syracuse
University. �But we�re very far from that point.�

Wilcoxen said it will take decades for enough solar, wind and other
local renewable resources to come on line, and in the interim, the
U.S. is going to need more centralized power. And, Wilcoxen said that
power needs to be as low-carbon as possible. And for supporters,
that�s one of the biggest arguments in favor of the project. Gilbert
Bennett of the provincial power authority argues the dams represent a
big source of clean energy that can fuel the economy while cutting
greenhouse gas emissions.

And he said opponents in Labrador who focus on the dams� impact on the
Churchill River may be missing the bigger picture: that climate change
caused by pollution from coal and other fossil fuels is already
affecting Labrador.

�The winters are later,� Bennett said. �The amount of rainfall in
December and January is greater, the freeze of the river is later and
the thaw is earlier. In Labrador, where you have consistently expected
to see cold winters and warm summers, we do see differences.�

To supporters, that raises the urgency for building a big, new, low-
carbon source of electricity like the dams, the first of which could
start to come online in about four years. But opponents are unmoved by
the green argument for the project.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Daphne Roberts lives below Muskrat
Falls. She hikes and fishes along the Churchill, and she worries the
fish and the views will disappear if the dams are built. And she has a
message about the river for the power company.

�I go sit on the riverbank and listen to the birds singing,� Roberts
said. �I was there just two days ago ... and I said you�re not going
to get it. We�re going to fight it. It�s not going to happen.�

Opponents of the Lower Churchill dams hope they can block its approval
by Canada�s public utilities board. But if the province prevails,
construction could start later this year.


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