What does Manitoba Hydro have to do to be refused an environmental licence for its new generating station?
This is the overarching question left hanging in the air after reviewing a decision by Manitoba's Clean Environment Commission -- obtained by the Free Press -- to issue a licence to Hydro for the Keeyask generating station in northern Manitoba.
In short, the CEC found there is likely to be "significant cumulative effect" on lake sturgeon and woodland caribou from the construction and operation of the $6.5-billion dam on the Nelson River, and measures to be undertaken by Hydro and its First Nation partners -- the so-called Keeyask Hydropower Limited Partnership (KHLP) -- while promising, are more experimental than anything else at this point.
Of greater concern is a decision by the CEC to ignore a condition it laid down in a previous licensing decision.
In its approval for the Bipole III transmission line, the CEC advised no further dam development should be undertaken on the Nelson River without a comprehensive Regional Cumulative Effects Study (RCES) of all past and future hydro projects. This ensures that in considering licensing for any single dam, the commission has information about the cumulative impact of all Manitoba Hydro generating stations.
Although the commission still wants that to happen, it is now prepared to issue a licence for Keeyask without having this important data in hand.
The CEC decision is not without its merits, however.
For the first time ever in an environmental licensing process, traditional aboriginal knowledge of the land and waterways was included as evidence in deliberations.
The CEC also showed its capacity for innovation by performing what was in essence four separate environmental assessments on four distinct issues: impact on lake sturgeon; impact on caribou; impact of methylmercury contamination; and impact of workers going in and out of environmentally sensitive land.
The CEC has also made numerous demands on the Keeyask partnership to continue studying, mitigating, remediating and repairing the damage done from this project. Lamentably, however, with a cumulative study the CEC does not know for sure whether any of these measures will be successful.
This is merely the latest example of the regulatory oddity that is the CEC. Although it operates at a somewhat arm's-length from government, its decisions are neither completely independent nor binding. In fact, all CEC orders must be stamped by a cabinet minister before being enacted. That means environmental regulation in Manitoba is conducted purely at the pleasure of the government of the day.
In that context, it seems obvious it was a foregone conclusion a licence would be issued for Keeyask. The NDP government remains bullish about expanding its network of northern generating stations, despite growing evidence they are neither needed nor particularly cost-effective.
Hydro certainly has acted all along as if a licence was a done deal. The utility has, by its own numbers, already spent nearly $1 billion on Keeyask.
The money was used to build a road into the dam site, train workers and otherwise ready the site for full construction.
Then, in the middle of hearings, Hydro awarded a general contract for dam construction. That is not the actions of a Crown corporation concerned about getting environmental approval.
It is important to note it is not the CEC's mandate to find a plan for dam construction that had no environmental impact. A dam of this magnitude will have some negative consequences.
The CEC process was to find the best way, with the least amount of environmental disturbance, to build this project.
Has the CEC succeeded in that goal?
We won't know for years, and even then we're not sure Hydro will feel compelled to make the results of any future cumulative studies public.
Even some of the most strident critics of Hydro's environmental policies will be pleased First Nations people, and traditional aboriginal knowledge, have been involved in this process more than ever before. And that those First Nations made a potent, moving case for allowing limited environmental damage in exchange for the possibility of sustainable economic development.
And yet, it's impossible to read the CEC's Keeyask decision and not wish the regulator had insisted a bit more on additional measures to protect sturgeon and caribou, or that a RCES be completed prior to substantive construction on the dam.
Weigh all the pros and cons, and there is only one clear conclusion to draw from this matter: It was not an option for the CEC to refuse to issue a licence for Keeyask. And that is a problem that is, respectively, much larger than the fate of sturgeon and caribou.