NEWS STORY
Slowing down the dams
Hydro-Québec faces a growing torrent of pressure to leave rivers in the province in their natural condition – without power dams

Don MacDONALD
The Gazette

Saturday, November 01, 2003

The Rivers Foundation is led by Michel Gauthier and Alain Saladzius, on the bank of the St. Lawrence. The foundation is gaining clout in its fight to protect Quebec rivers, in part because of its vice-president, actor Roy Dupuis.

A campaign to have people adopt a Quebec river gained momentum when celebrities like Quebec actor Roy Dupuis joined in.

When Hydro-Québec president André Caillé declared last week that his utility doesn’t want to dam every last river in Quebec, Alain Saladzius and Michel Gauthier took it as a signal their message is getting through.

Caillé made the comment unprompted at a conference where he was discussing Hydro’s plans to invest $3.5 billion a year in development to the year 2020.

Saladzius and Gauthier, who led a successful fight against the damming of dozens of small rivers across Quebec, took Caillé’s words to mean their latest creation – the Rivers Foundation – is causing waves in the right places.

“He wouldn’t have said something like that five years ago,” Gauthier said in an interview this week on the second floor of his Plateau Mont-Royal home that doubles as the foundation’s headquarters.

“We’re beginning to bother people. And that means we’re having an impact.”

The Rivers Foundation is still in its infancy, but already it has attracted quite a bit of attention thanks in large part to the popularity of its vice-president, actor Roy Dupuis.

Dupuis, star of TV shows like Nikita and the Last Chapter as well as numerous films, joined with Gauthier and Saladzius in launching the Rivers Foundation after participating in the campaign to stop the provincial government’s plan to allow private energy producers to dam small rivers.

The “Adopt-A-River” campaign took off when a long list of Quebec celebrities including Dupuis and singer Paul Piché agreed to symbolically adopt a river slated for hydro development.

Last year, the Parti Québécois government finally backed down on that plan, saying no new mini-hydro projects would be allowed on untouched rivers.

The campaign earned Saladzius, a 45-year-old provincial government engineer, three awards last year including being named Hero of the Year by the French-language edition of Readers’ Digest.

Now Saladzius and Gauthier, along with their allies in environmental groups and local communities, have broadened their horizons.

Not only will they continue to fight against small hydro projects – which they fear will be resurrected by the Liberals – but they also will challenge Hydro-Québec’s plans to build mega-projects on larger rivers.

Last week, Caillé outlined the utility’s development plans, including spending $10 billion to divert the mighty Rupert River in the James Bay region and opening up untouched territory on the Lower North Shore to develop the Romaine and the Pétit Mécatina Rivers.

He also called for an acceleration of a series of projects already under construction or awaiting authorization, as well as the construction of a natural-gas-fired Suroît power plant in Beauharnois on the South Shore.

Caillé argued that Hydro-Québec had to increase its capacity in the short term to meet demand in Quebec that is forecast to increase by 1.5 per cent a year to 2008. He warned Quebec needs to act to avoid an energy crunch like ones experienced in California and Ontario.

In those jurisdictions, consumers were faced with rocketing prices when utilities had to buy energy on external markets.

In the longer term, Hydro-Québec wants to rebuild the amount of surplus energy it has for export to neighbouring provinces and the eastern United States.

The utility wants to increase net exports to 15 to 20 Terawatt/hours from less than five this year.

“The hydroelectric potential exists in Quebec,” Caillé said.

“We have a source of wealth in Quebec and it’s water. We will make you wealthier as Quebecers. The mandate received from (former premier) Jean Lesage is to develop our hydroelectric potential. That’s our mission.”

But Saladzius and Gauthier point to an analysis by their associate, researcher Jean-François Blain, who argues that Hydro-Québec will, in fact, be holding 25 to 30 Terawatt-hours of surplus capacity by 2008 when all the projects currently under construction or on stand-by for authorization comes on line.

They also contend the provincial government should beef up energy- conservation efforts to reduce the need for new hydroelectric development and Hydro-Québec should increase energy production from rivers that are already dammed.

“There’s a ‘beaver syndrome’ in Quebec,” said Gauthier, 44, a former film-set photographer who produced a documentary film called Rivières d’argent on the issue of damming small rivers.

“All we think about is damming rivers.”

Independent energy analyst Philip Raphals said a key issue in Quebec’s energy-planning landscape is the lack of regulatory oversight over energy generation in the province.

Under a law passed in 2000, the provincial Régie de l’energie has jurisdiction over Hydro-Québec’s distribution and transmission arms but not generation.

While there will be legislature hearings on the utility’s development plans announced last week, there will be no formal public hearings involving counter-expertise and leading to regulatory approval.

“There’s a good argument to be made that regulatory approval should be required for any power generation,” said Raphals, associate director of the Helios Centre. “Then you get to the question ‘is that a strictly economic analysis or is that integrating environmental and social concerns?’ ”

Raphals noted that under the 2000 changes, Hydro-Québec distribution, which delivers electricity to Quebec customers, is a separate company from generation. Under the law, distribution must put out tenders for the electricity it forecasts it will need and buy it from the supplier with the lowest price. That supplier will not necessarily be Hydro-Québec generation.

Therefore, Hydro-Québec generation is planning new capacity for which it does not yet have a customer, even though Caillé is publicly justifying these huge investments on the basis of Quebec demand.

“Hydro-Québec generation … doesn’t particularly care about the distinction between domestic markets and export markets. They’re all part of the northeast North American wholesale electricity market,” Raphals said.

The River Foundation has collected $90,000 and Gauthier said its fundraising goal is $2 million a year.

The money will go toward such activities as education programs and support for local groups fighting against projects in their region, he said.

For now, the foundation is calling on Quebec’s Liberal government to make good on its promise to hold a public debate on energy.

“Our goal isn’t to systematically oppose (development),” Saladzius said. “We want to inform the public and encourage debate about these issues.”

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