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Premier Brian Pallister said he would not rule out construction of a power transmission line on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, and he even entertained the possibility that a line, currently under construction in western Manitoba, could be rerouted.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Pallister was asked if he could see any scenario in which a hydro transmission line from the north might be built on the east side of the province.
"Absolutely," was his response.
He said down the road, Manitoba might need a fourth transmission line from northern dams to supply power to southern Manitoba.
"At some future point, we hope the economy grows, we hope our province grows, we hope our hydro needs grow," the premier said. "And if they grow we may need another route, we may need Bipole 4. If we need Bipole 4 we need every available route to consider."
Asked if there was any chance of moving the current $4.6 billion construction project — now well underway — to the east side of Manitoba from the west side, he said: "Sure, absolutely."
Pallister said the new Manitoba Hydro board of directors, appointed by his government last month, would review the route and get back to him in the not-too-distant future.
"It’s up to the Hydro board to take a look at that. And we’ll hear what they have to say," he said.
Rob Altemeyer, the NDP critic for sustainable development, said he was "shocked and appalled" by the premier's comments.
He said the remarks would make Hydro customers nervous and could endanger international recognition of the boreal forest area of eastern Manitoba and western Ontario. UNESCO is expected to decide on declaring the area a heritage site next month.
"Pallister is putting all of that at risk by entertaining the fictional idea that he or the Hydro board could decide to put the (transmission) line down the east side. They’d be in court for decades. It’s not going to happen," Altemeyer said.
The NDP has also maintained the line is needed to improve the reliability of the power supply for Manitobans.
The PCs, when they were in Opposition, continually attacked the former NDP government for ordering Manitoba Hydro to run a third transmission line down the western side of Lake Manitoba when it originally chose the east side of Manitoba as its preferred route. The west side route is longer, moves power less efficiently and is much more costly, its critics have long said.
Changing course on the project now, however, would be extremely costly and would involve substantial project delays. As of March, Manitoba Hydro had already spent $1.8 billion on the western line, the Crown corporation said.
On May 4, Pallister appointed a new board of directors for Hydro, headed by businessman Sanford Riley.
Pallister admitted to reporters that the latest information he has on the costs and progress of the project are more than a year old.
"With the older numbers that I saw a year ago, there was every chance that you could reverse that decision (to build the transmission line on the west side of the province). It was a really bad decision going on that route," he said.
"But I don’t know what the current numbers are and I hope the people that we’ve appointed… will have a good look at that, and we come up with a resolution that’s in the best interests of Manitobans now and in the decades to come as well."
The federal, Manitoba and Ontario governments have put up millions of dollars over the past decade in the attempt to secure the UNESCO designation for Pimachiowin Aki — an Ojibwa phrase that translates as "the land that gives life."
The effort was dealt a setback in 2013, when UN advisory groups said it was unclear whether the area — a relatively untouched stretch of forest half the size of New Brunswick — is unique.
The governments submitted a reworked bid with more information about the ties between the area's indigenous inhabitants and the land, and the advisory groups have recommended the bid be given final approval at a meeting of the UNESCO world heritage committee in Turkey in July.
— with files from The Canadian Press