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What if Hydro assumptions wrong?

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The Selinger government has announced that the proposal for a World Heritage Site east of Lake Winnipeg will be forwarded to UNESCO in a matter of days.

If timing is everything, is it just a coincidence that the UNESCO proposal would be announced the day after the government took a lot of heat from concerns expressed by the Public Utilities Board?

Government meddling in Hydro decisions seems to be fundamental to Hydro's apparent difficulty to explain its financial situation to a board whose role it is to scrutinize such matters on behalf of the public.

The government missed, or chose to ignore, three significant factors that affect the people of Manitoba.

They have ignored the First Nation communities affected even though they have been involved to some extent in the planning for the World Heritage proposal.

By itself, this will do very little to improve their livelihood. They need economic development assistance appropriate for each of their communities. Despite the best intentions by "the outside," only the communities are in a position to assess their needs. Programs established for some predetermined national need are not likely to be all that relevant to any particular community.

Combined with economic development, they also need some combination of social development programs, again appropriate to their particular circumstances: one size does not fit all.

The government continues to ignore the fact that they're putting Manitoba taxpayers on the hook for guaranteeing the extra $1 billion to locate Bipole III to the west of lakes Winnipegosis and Manitoba. The extra cost is supposed to be recovered from export sales, but it is unclear that this will materialize. Hence, the PUB has expressed serious concerns. It might even be possible to avoid the expense now for the new converters that Bipole III require, as the existing ones would work with an east side line. New converters could be constructed once needed for additional production some time in the future.

Finally, the government has prohibited consideration of a carefully located Bipole III line through the east side, which could be done without compromising a UNESCO proposition. Instead, they have agreed that the protected area can go all the way to Lake Winnipeg and that an all-weather road can be constructed through it!

An all-weather road does much more damage along its route than a hydro line, but no one would argue against the need for communities to the east of Lake Winnipeg to have more reliable transportation at a time when climate warming is rendering winter roads useless.

Move the boundary of the UNESCO proposal about 15 kilometres from the lake and put the bipole line and road within the resulting corridor.

Concentrating routes of any type within a corridor makes more sense than several corridors, and is certainly more realistic than loading future Manitobans with overwhelming debt.

Concurrently, it virtually eliminates substantial impacts on migratory birds (a federal responsibility) that would occur with a west side line through tornado prone territory.

Agricultural impacts on the west side over a 60-year period are of major consequence.

Designating a substantial area east of Lake Winnipeg for protection as a representation of boreal forest has merit, although it by no means assures UNESCO recognition.

The current area proposed may include areas that might detract from the overall value, while imposing unnecessary costs on the public: respectively, a polluted Lake Winnipeg and $1 billion extra for the Bipole III line. Lake Winnipeg itself is now so heavily polluted it manifests algae blooms, largely from phosphorus in City of Winnipeg sewage. This could well detract from the merits of the World Heritage proposal.

Fast-forward a few years. Bipole III is in place on the west side but exports are not up to projections as feared by the PUB. Manitoba Hydro customers now have to pay considerably higher rates, or the Manitoba government has to step in and relieve some of Hydro's debt, thereby raising provincial taxes: either income, sales taxes, or both.

It is impossible to project that this extra $1 billion in debt is a fiscally responsible decision.

One alternative would be to put Manitoba Hydro up for sale!

This unusual situation of consecutive errors of judgment on the part of the government of Manitoba detract from other policies that same government has initiated to make Manitoba a better place in which to live. One has to wonder what is behind the disconnect.

It would be unfortunate indeed if this position resulted in any of the following: no UNESCO World Heritage Site; First Nation communities gradually becoming worse off due to population growth and no economic opportunities; a $1-billion increase to the debt of Manitoba Hydro; higher rates for electricity; higher taxes and ultimately, the sale of Manitoba Hydro due to the brilliant red of its bottom line.

It's not too late for all parties to sit down and to find a reasonable and fiscally responsible solution.

Jim Collinson is a strategic energy-economy-environment consultant. For two terms, he was president of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2012 A16

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