Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bipole mired by resistance

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Electrical resistance refers to how strongly a material opposes the flow of an electrical current, while conductivity refers to an object's ability to carry or conduct a current.

The path of least resistance, on the other hand, is the policy adopted by the Manitoba government in making decisions about Bipole III, the $3.3-billion transmission line to conduct electricity to southern Manitoba and the United States.

The latest example of political decision-making on the most expensive project in the province's history occurred Tuesday when Manitoba Hydro agreed to file a new environmental assessment on a revised route for the transmission line.

The Crown corporation had earlier told the Clean Environment Commission its route changes would be more environmentally friendly, apparently hoping such an assurance would be enough to proceed without an expanded review -- the path of least resistance.

But when aboriginal groups threatened legal action, the principle of conductivity was quickly turned on. There will be a supplemental review, even though Hydro had earlier warned too many delays could have catastrophic consequences, including rolling blackouts if the project isn't completed in five years.

Money is not an issue in the science of resistance and conductivity, but it is when planning a multi-billion-dollar transmission line. The right choice, according to Hydro's own experts, was the east side of the province because it was the shortest route and would have saved money in many ways, including the ancillary costs associated with the longer western route. The final cost of the western route could exceed $4 billion, according to some analysts, at least $1 billion more expensive than the eastern route.

The province, however, feared that aboriginal opposition and the environmental lobby would create too much resistance, so the line was moved to the west side of the province.

The government never made a convincing case that aboriginals on the east side, some of whom would have welcomed the line, could not have been persuaded to accept it. They might even be more agreeable than the aboriginals on the west side, who don't like what they see so far.

The environmental lobby was also an exaggerated fear.

The government trumpeted the value of a pristine wilderness on the east side, saying the area could eventually be recognized as an environmental jewel by the United Nations, but there's no evidence it couldn't achieve that status with a hydro line.

The Public Utilities Board, because of declining electricity export sales, is not even convinced there is a hurry to build the new line. New supplies of natural gas have also raised questions about whether Manitoba Hydro is planning for the right level of demand.

The NDP government has steadfastly refused to consider the possibility of less costly alternatives or even to build a case justifying the need for the dramatic increase in power transmission.

There is still time for the province to do a major rethink of its hydro policies, including the plan to locate Bipole III on the west side. In fact, as criticism mounts, a complete re-evaluation may turn out to be the path of least resistance.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 A16

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