Friday, November 23, 2007

Thirst for Energy Fuels Controversial Hydroelectric Power Project in Quebec, Canada

All Things Considered, November 9, 2007 · When politicians make speeches about America's reliance on foreign energy, they're usually talking about oil from the Middle East or other unstable hotspots.

But a growing number of Americans get their electricity from one massive hydroelectric complex in northern Quebec. The Canadian power company Hydro-Quebec has been building a series of hydroelectric dams since the 1970s on rivers that flow into the James Bay. The company is owned and operated by Quebec's provincial government.

The latest Hydro-Quebec project will uproot and move the Rupert River, an engineering feat that supporters say will rival the Trans-Alaska pipeline.

But the Rupert River is sacred to the Cree Indians who live nearby.

Forcing Out the Cree

Chief Josie Jimiken sits talking on his cell phone in a diner in Nemaska, a tiny Cree village roughly a thousand miles due north of New York City.

Jimiken grew up on the Rupert River. He calls a plan by Hydro-Quebec to divert roughly 70 percent of the river's water a kind of sucker punch for his tribe.

"I was 10 years old when the first projects were announced to harness the dam and divert the rivers up here in our territory. We ended up being forced out of our community site," Jimiken said.

Villagers moved to Nemaska in the 1970s, but they still spend summers back at their traditional camps along the Rupert.

Jimiken says those hunting and fishing grounds — along with ancient burial sites — will be lost when the project is finished.

'Hydro-Quebec is the Mad Scientist'

Fly over the northern forest that flanks James Bay and you see untouched valleys framed by granite outcroppings. Brilliant gold tamarack trees frame russet-red muskegs.

But you also see a vast web of electric lines, power substations, roads and canals.

A half-dozen major rivers have already been dammed or diverted, creating artificial reservoirs that cover nearly 6,000 square miles.

That kind of human footprint in an area that was untouched a generation ago makes activists like Daniel Green cringe.

"We have severely modified almost a third of Quebec's northern water courses, hydrology," Green said.

Green is an environmental scientist with the Sierra Club, based in Montreal. He said the rivers being re-plumbed by Hydro-Quebec feed everything from beluga whale habitats in James Bay and Hudson Bay to spawning grounds for rare river trout.

"We are doing an experiment in Quebec's north and Hydro-Quebec is the mad scientist," Green said. "We do not know where this is going to go."

Tangled Political, Moral Calculations

In the 1990s, green groups joined with the Cree Indians and managed to kill a plan to dam the Great Whale River, which lies to the north of the Rupert.

That was a bitter defeat for French Canadians like Lavigne, who see the James Bay hydro complex as a symbol of national pride — an engineering feat to rival the Hoover Dam that also generates annual profits of $2.5 billion.

"They gave us bad press. They went to France, to Europe. They went to the States and said that we were eliminating — not eliminating a community, but a genocide or something like that," Lavigne said.

Here is the full article and broadcast.