Manitoba Hydro's new Bipole III transmission line could face a significant delay because of the utility's attempt to change its route -- to avoid fragile caribou and moose habitat -- without redoing its environmental assessment of the project.
That supplemental assessment would give First Nations and the Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) an opportunity to study the new route and how it would impact their communities, but Hydro is concerned it could delay plans for a 2017 in-service date for the power line.
"It would certainly have impacts on the schedule we're desperately trying to maintain," Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said Thursday.
The Crown corporation tabled its revised route plans late last week with two major changes: the first to veer the line around the Wabowden woodland caribou grounds and the second around an area farther south known as moose meadows. The province recognized woodland caribou as threatened under the province's Endangered Species Act in June 2006 and some parts of western Manitoba are now closed to moose hunting because of low populations.
The 1,400-kilometre Bipole III line proposal is currently before the province's Clean Environment Commission (CEC) as it conducts public hearings on the line's environmental impact.
The CEC is powerless to compel Hydro to redo its environmental assessment on the revised route but urges the utility to offer more information for public review.
"I think it would be pretty necessary for participants to have some kind of an environmental assessment PDQ," CEC chairman Terry Sargeant said at a hearing earlier this week.
"I would say to Manitoba Hydro that we're on a very tight timeline right now. If we don't conclude these hearings by the end of November, we may be looking at January, the end of January before they are concluded."
The revised route has added more flames to the fire of the MMF's threatened court challenge against Bipole III, which could delay the project indefinitely.
The MMF and Pine Creek First Nation argue they have not been adequately consulted on the project by Hydro -- a legal requisite under Canada's constitution.
"Whether at the end of the day people are supportive of what the new route changes are or not is not the point," MMF lawyer Jason Madden said. "The point is government and Hydro don't get to go behind closed doors, make the changes and not come back out to the public and to aboriginal groups and say one, what do you think about the changes, and secondly, what are the environmental effects?"
The MMF and other groups want the CEC to adjourn its hearing until Hydro complies with the law. The CEC had planned to wrap up its hearing by month's end.
"It is my submission that the appropriate way to deal with this mess is to simply adjourn the hearing process until such time as Hydro has got its act together," Peguis First Nation lawyer Robert Dawson told the CEC panel Tuesday.
Regardless of what Hydro does or what the CEC says in its final report on Bipole III, the MMF has already signalled they will go to court to block the project.
"This isn't about Hydro's schedule," Madden said. "This is about fairness."
The MMF and Peguis First Nation say Bipole III will cut through their traditional lands. They say if it's built, they want a cut of the revenue it generates through surplus power exports to the United States.
Hydro negotiated a revenue-sharing deal with the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation on the recently completed Wuskwatim generation station near Thompson and is currently negotiating a similar agreement with four northern bands on the proposed Keeyask dam project.
Manitoba Hydro CEO Scott Thomson has said the province risks rolling blackouts and a potentially crippling hit to the economy if it doesn't go ahead with a $20-billion plan to build Bipole III, Keeyask and the Conawapa generating station.
The bipole line, estimated to cost $3.28 billion, is to run down the west side of the province and is intended to bring more reliability to Hydro's system, including meeting rising domestic demand in southern Manitoba.
Bipole III quotes
"I mean, I don't see how we can conclude these hearings until we have had a fair environmental assessment of what may well be the final route of this project."
-- Terry Sargeant, chairman of Manitoba's Clean Environment Commission
"This is not Etch-a-Sketch transmission routing. There needs to be an environmental assessment based upon the route that is before the commission. It's plain and simple."
-- Manitoba Metis Federation lawyer Jason Madden
"We have had no approach, no conversation, no contact from Manitoba Hydro to discuss or consider this. It has been up to us to pull teeth."
-- Pine Creek First Nation spokesman Warren Mills
"Ultimately, I think any participant who walks out of here should have only one feeling, shall we say, and that is that they were fairly treated."
-- Peguis First Nation lawyer Robert Dawson
-- source: Clean Environment Commission transcripts Nov. 6, 2012