Manitoba's Clean Environment Commission, in slamming Manitoba Hydro for its "flawed" environment-impact study on the Bipole III transmission line, may have put the brakes on the province's plans to build the Keeyask and Conawapa generating stations.
Hidden near the back of the environmental watchdog's report is a recommendation Hydro and the province take a hard look at what the cumulative impact has been on the Nelson River from hydro development going back to the 1960s.
The CEC also said this study should be undertaken prior to the licensing of any additional projects, which includes the $6.2-billion Keeyask dam that is supposed to be operational by 2019 as part of Hydro's plan to sell surplus energy to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Lawyer Byron Williams, who acts for the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Consumers Association, said the recommendation has the potential to delay the Keeyask project.
"Certainly, this is a big story," he said.
Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said the Crown power utility is studying the entire report.
He said one issue, at this early stage, is determining a baseline to begin to do such a study as the environmental laws of the 1970s and 1980s were less stringent than now. The oldest generating station on the Nelson River is the Kettle generating station, which opened in 1974.
"It's a challenge to do representative studies," he said.
The CEC's report came out Thursday. It recommended the province issue an environmental licence for the Bipole III transmission line down the west side of the province, but it was highly critical of the environmental-impact study (EIS) prepared by Hydro and recommended to the province it overhaul its legislation on how future studies are done.
"This would go a long way to ensuring that Manitoba's environment is protected, as well as facilitating an informed public," the CEC said.
Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh has said the province will move up by two years a consultation process on improving the EIS process. Consultations will start this year instead of 2015.
Tory Hydro critic Ron Schuler said the CEC's recommendation "raised a red flag" about Hydro's proposed future development on the Nelson River.
"This will benefit ratepayers in the long run," he said. "If hydro is our oilpatch, we have to start dealing with it with unbelievable respect."
Schuler said that includes the provincial government allowing the Public Utilities Board wider berth in an upcoming special hearing, called a Needs For And Alternatives To (NFAT) study, on the Keeyask and Conawapa projects.
Williams said the PUB, in an order released earlier this year, had expressed reservations about the need for two dams and their cost to Manitobans.
The PUB said the estimated $3.28-billion cost of Bipole III will not be covered by export electricity sales from Keeyask and Conawapa as the capital costs of those projects had nearly doubled, and that forecast annual revenues generated by the two projects would not be enough to cover their incremental costs at the start of their operation.
The PUB said it would review Hydro's cost and revenue data at the upcoming NFAT hearing.