The Selinger government has the recommendation it wanted from its own environmental watchdog's Bipole III report. With this, it can now approve its west-side route, costing $2.5 to $3.5 billion more than one down the east side. Manitoba citizens will be paying off this debt in the form of electricity bills or taxes for generations. All this to produce hydroelectric power for a market fast-dwindling to non-existent.
The U.S. is now well on its way to energy self-sufficiency. Manitobans will be left to give away excess energy produced at excessive cost in dollars, wildlife habitat, farmers' livelihoods and way of life. The argument for UNESCO World Heritage designation carries no weight as a natural area, as this same government plans an all-weather road through the boreal forest -- the Bipole III line would cause far less collateral damage and save billions in lower debt for taxpayers.
This questions the government's ability to govern in the best interests of Manitobans. The debt burden and subsequent necessary rate and tax hikes will discourage future population growth and business development.
The root cause of this debacle is lack of due diligence on a macro-assessment of Manitoba Hydro's long-term investment plans in the context of structural changes in the North American energy future. Hydro, once the infrastructure is installed, is relatively green, but it is no longer the least costly.
The Clean Environment Commission has completed its kabuki dance (a U.S. political term derived from Japanese theatre where the conclusion is already known). Its report includes much gnashing of teeth, some of which could be very helpful to future assessment processes, but in the end, the predictable happened: Manitoba Hydro can be issued a licence to construct Bipole III along a circular route to Winnipeg.
Hydro was part of the dance, too. They produced a very detailed environmental impact statement that missed the mark in terms of what was needed by a long margin. But then, they assumed the result was preordained, so why try to explain the unexplainable?
Although a licence still awaits further legally required consultations with aboriginal people, particularly M©tis, there seems to be a determination to go ahead with the west-side route as soon as this "distraction" has been addressed.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Premier Greg Selinger has given not any indication he will reconsider, even though in a backhand way his own environment commission has given him much to ponder.
Here is what supports a rethinking of the entire project (some of which has been noted by the CEC).
The final cost will exceed $5.5 billion when all monetary costs are counted, including significant compensation to farmers affected. Although Hydro projects the effects for 50 years, everyone knows they will continue much longer.
Some time in the future, there may be export opportunities to the U.S., but current conditions indicate there are many other options available to U.S. consumers.
Impacts on woodland caribou, a species already in decline, could be highly significant. Will the trees and plants affected by the route be put in the fridge so they can be re-planted and the line removed if the impacts are too great?
Similarly, if bird strikes exceed Hydro's projection of 18 per kilometre each year (a more likely figure is more than 100) are exceeded, will the line be moved? Hydro never attempted to count bird strikes on existing Bipole lines.
Not even mentioned in the CEC report is the high risk of locating a power line through a tornado-prone alley to the west and south of Lake Manitoba, even though security was emphasized during the hearings.
The IUCN, UNESCO's advisory body for World Heritage natural areas, has concluded the east side does not meet the criteria, and that the proposed all-weather road as well as area boundaries present problems. ICOMOS, the adviser on cultural matters, continues to have concerns, but is trying to find a solution. The recent committee meeting deferred the proposal, pending further consultations. Within this context, it might be possible to reconsider a carefully selected east-side route for Bipole III and avoid most of the major issues facing the western route.
Evidence provided to the CEC indicates there are route alternatives that are less expensive that have less impact than the current one. Evidence also has been provided that the world of Manitoba Hydro will not come to an end if Bipole III is deferred pending further analysis of route options.
Manitoba Hydro and the Selinger government (if indeed there is any difference) have had their heads in the sand on this for some time, but the fact is markets are not what they were projected to be, so why spend money now?
There is a solution.
While consultations are underway, why not also consult with east-side communities about ways to locate Bipole III through that area. Such consultations will need time and, most importantly, a capacity to listen. Perhaps using a "talking stick" or similar approach might be considered. This process needs to accept all the concerns of all parties, then raise the discussion to a new level that seeks ways that allow everyone to win. Untangling this mess would benefit all affected.
The extra cost of the western route, even using Hydro's numbers, is at least $1 billion more. Why not consider allocating some portion of these funds to an endowment for use by east-side communities for economic and social development within a sustainable context defined by those communities?
They could use the funds to derive benefits from their stewardship of the boreal area, attracting tourists to the places and in the numbers that respect their objectives. Concurrently, Manitoba ratepayers would feel some relief and know the money is being put to a much better use than one that penalizes farmers, birds and wildlife
The CEC, albeit in a rather awkward way, has given the Selinger government some food for serious thought, and an opportunity to change course for everyone's benefit.
Jim Collinson is a management consultant specializing in the complexities surrounding energy, economy and environment issues. For two terms, he was president of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.