Earlier this month, the Clean Environment Commission concluded three months of numbingly detailed and occasionally passion-sparked hearings into the proposed Keeyask Dam.
The CEC's report on the hearings, due in April, might not influence the government's decision on the $6.2-billion dam -- the government appears fully committed to the project, and even if the CEC opposed it, its recommendations are not binding -- but the report could still accomplish something critical.
It could rebut and redraft Manitoba's official happy hydro narrative, the porous set of assertions on which hydro expansion is founded.
The standard clean-hydro script was presented by Hydro at the Keeyask hearings. It was also showcased by Premier Greg Selinger in Washington, D.C., last February. Speaking to an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Selinger portrayed Manitoba as a leader on climate and energy policy. He positioned Keeyask on this cutting edge, a benign source of energy to displace coal in the U.S.
He said the "legacy of bitterness" in the north has given way to a new era. New dams will be built in a way that not only reduces negative impacts, Selinger said, but uses them as "an opportunity to make environmental conditions better."
A remarkable claim.
What neither Selinger nor Hydro include in the official story, and what the CEC should include in its report, is this: A dam itself is no favour to the environment. Moose and beavers do not stand on the shore applauding as bulldozers roar and dynamite goes off.
Keeyask would involve pouring 870,000 tonnes of cement in the Nelson River. The work camps, roads, borrow pits and flooding would affect 14,000 hectares, not including the 1,400-kilometre Bipole III corridor.
Selinger said this project would improve environmental conditions. "In the next dam we're building," he told the D.C. crowd, "we're going to be restoring the sturgeon fishery in northern Manitoba."
If it were that easy -- and more than one presenter at the hearing cast doubt on that -- why didn't the government do so long ago?
Even more important than the effects of the dam itself, and more obscured by Hydro and government, is the fact Keeyask would rely directly on the larger hydro system.
According to Hydro numbers, as much as 40 per cent of the water that would flow through Keeyask would come from the Churchill River, three-quarters of which is diverted into the Nelson. Keeyask would also rely on Lake Winnipeg Regulation and Hydro's other reservoir storage.
The entire hydro system is designed and operated as a single integrated whole. Keeyask would be an expansion of that system, not an isolated, stand-alone project.
This is important because the story of that larger system is a messy one. Hydro dams have fundamentally and permanently altered the four largest rivers in the province (the Nelson, Churchill, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan) and three of the five largest lakes (Lake Winnipeg, Southern Indian Lake and Cedar Lake). Many smaller bodies of water are also affected.
The environmental effects are severe and ongoing, as the CEC has heard repeatedly over the years. Anyone who has travelled those waterways can see shoreline erosion and ecological disruption is widespread.
In the face of this, and in the absence of a comprehensive review of the hydro system, which has never been done, to call hydro clean is a simplified, convenient and untested assertion.
The clean-hydro mantra hinges on the fact dams don't have smokestacks. As Selinger rightly pointed out in D.C., and as Hydro stated at the hearings, hydroelectricity is a reliable, low-carbon form of energy that can complement intermittent wind power in the Midwest. As such, Selinger said, it is part of the solution to climate change.
He didn't say that despite his desire to reduce emissions in the U.S., Manitoba flatly failed to meet its own legislated Kyoto-like emission targets.
Dams don't reduce emissions per se, they increase power supply. They can't be part of a climate solution unless such a solution exists. As evidenced by Manitoba's own record, such a plan is not nearly as far advanced as the plans to build legacy-scale projects first envisioned long before climate change was identified.
Is Keeyask pushing the leading edge of energy and climate policy? Is it clean? Or is it a complex megaproject with potential benefits and serious consequences that need to be accurately described and thoughtfully weighed?
To echo a phrase from the closing argument of the Consumers Association of Canada at the hearing, hopefully the CEC report will "pierce the veil of Hydro branding."
Will Braun works for the Interchurch Council on Hydropower.