BRANDON -- It represents the last, and perhaps best, opportunity to delay, modify or even kill Manitoba Hydro's controversial plan to spend tens of billions of dollars on new dams and transmission lines, but that opportunity will vanish unless those opposed to the plan move quickly.
The economic justification for Hydro's plan to construct the Keeyask and Conawapa dams, along with the Manitoba-Minnesota transmission lines -- and I believe Bipole III as well -- hinges on its ability to sell electricity to American customers. Before the utility can sell a single ampere of power from the new projects to its American customers, however, the construction and sale must be approved by the National Energy Board and, ultimately, the Harper government.
"Manitoba Hydro's energy exports are subject to NEB oversight," confirmed Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Scott Powell. "The proposed Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project will require an authorization for construction and operation from the NEB.
"Also, the project is subject to an environmental assessment and review by the NEB under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA)."
While Manitoba Hydro has successfully navigated (so far) a provincial regulatory process that is, by design, fated to trigger approval from the Selinger government, the NEB is truly arm's length from the province. It possesses the technical expertise to conduct a thorough review of Manitoba Hydro's plans, and is immune to political interference by the provincial government.
As to the scope of an NEB investigation, a 2003 decision that approved an earlier export of electricity by Manitoba Hydro said: "Where the construction of new facilities is required to serve, among other needs, the demands of an export contract, then the environmental effects of the construction of those facilities are related to the export."
In the regulations relating to NEB applications for electricity exports, the definition of "environmental effect" is extremely broad. It includes "any change that the project may cause in the environment, including any effect of any such change on health and socio-economic conditions, on physical and cultural heritage, on the current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes by aboriginal persons, or on any structure, site or thing that is of historical, archaeological, paleontological or architectural significance."
In short, the NEB has sweeping jurisdiction to examine not only the merits of a proposed electricity export, but the impact of the construction of all facilities related to that sale. It has the power to consider the impact of every aspect of Manitoba Hydro's dam and transmission line plans, and to recommend the federal cabinet impose conditions before approving the construction and sale.
There is a catch, however.
Though the NEB has expansive powers to review electricity export applications, it does not always do so. Indeed, the NEB Act directs the board to approve the sale without holding a public hearing unless the federal cabinet orders a comprehensive review of the application be held. It has not yet made that order.
The challenge for the many Manitobans opposed to Manitoba Hydro's expensive expansion plans is to convince the Harper government and the NEB to take a serious look at those plans -- to conduct a review similar in scope to that undertaken by the NEB in respect of the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.
The plan's opponents have a strong argument that Keeyask, Conawapa and the transmission lines will collectively impact a huge swath of Manitoba wilderness and farmland. There are myriad socio-economic and environmental implications along the entire route. The interests of thousands of First Nations and Métis Manitobans are potentially affected by the plan.
The fact the proposed transmission lines would be largely located in federal ridings currently represented by Conservative MPs may also be a relevant factor.
A compelling case can be made for the Harper government to intervene, but time is quickly running out.
Manitoba Hydro has already spent almost $2 billion on the project and has signed construction contracts to spend even more. As each day passes, the project moves closer to the point where it becomes be too big to stop or even modify.
If the plan's detractors are earnest in their demands for a comprehensive review that is fair, open and transparent, they need to contact their MPs immediately.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.