Carla Green: Earlier this afternoon I spoke to Christopher Scott from Alliance Romaine about the group’s resistance to the development of the Romaine river in Northern Québec. We spoke about the ecological and economic problems with the project and why Alliance Romaine activists are walking around in front of Hydro Québec’s office at 8 am in white elephant costumes. Here’s the interview:
CG: First off, can you talk a little about the project with the Romaine river and why Alliance Romaine is in opposition to it,
Christopher Scott: The Romaine river is one of Québec’s biggest, wildest, most majestic remaining rivers. It actually flows foam the highlands of Labrador to the gulf of the St Lawrence and actually empties at the site of Mingan Archipelago National Park, So it empties into an area that is extremely rich in marine life, it is a salmon stream, it goes through Canadian shield and typical boreal forest. It basically irrigates in and provides oxygen to an entire eco system. The Romaine river is a large river but it is typical of the types you see on the north shore and in Northern Québec – what makes the Romaine special is in light of all the hydro development that has been done in the last 15 years in the province it is one of the largest remaining rivers of its size that you can currently drive to in Québec from Montreal. So its a spectacular eco system that its one you can canoe down, that is used by First Nations for hunting and trapping, a salmon stream, characterized by huge splashing waterfalls and rapids – its really a spectacular site to see. But, it is currently in the process of being gutted by Hydro Québec. They are building a four dam complex at the cost of 8 billion dollars to tax payers which is to be completed in 2020. And what makes this project especially galling is that the project will be basically producing energy we, as a province don’t need. It will be producing energy that may end up staying in the reservoirs continuing, because of faulty planning, to not be used and to add to our surplus. So we are destroying one of our last rivers and paying through the nose for that privilege.
CG: Why would the government want to produce energy that it doesn’t need?
CS: I think when the project started that there was this ideological assumption that, build it and they will come. That they will attract companies that are going to come and take advantage of Québec’s low energy prices. So it’s this assumption that aluminum companies would be expanding their operations, building new wings. There was the Plan Nord, which was the Charest government’s was very much in favour of, which basically said: we’re going to attract foreign investment, we’re going to vacuum out all the mineral wealth in the North sub soil of Québec – and these kinds of projects require huge amounts of electricity.
Two things need to be said about this. One thing is that, this is based on the speculation that these companies will come and that their investors will feel comfortable and that the economy will continue to grow and there will be a demand for these minerals. This ideological assumption has been disproven by facts since 2008. The second thing that needs to be mentioned is, even if the companies were to come and buy all the energy we are producing at the price we are offering it at we would essentially be taking a loss as taxpayers. So in the case of the Romaine the energy that is produced would cost about 9 cents a kilowatt hour – this comes from the expense of building the dam and so on divided by the amount of electricity it produced. We would be selling this energy to the aluminum smelters in Québec that buy it at 3 cents a kilowatt hour. There was a plan to raise this slightly and now the aluminum companies are bawking and saying we don’t want to pay 4 and a half cents a kilowatt hour, which would still be half of what it costs us to produce. So it’s an expensive project that would involve subsidizing private investment, hoping that the private investment will actually come, which it may not. What we’re saying as Alliance Romaine is that aside from the environmental damage that it will cause, which should be factored in to any decision, we think that some of the 8 billion dollars we are spending on the Romaine project should be spent on employment generating opportunities of a different sort in the North Shore region and in other parts of rural Québec, You can take some of that 8 billion dollars and encourage everything from eco-forestry to local farming to knowledge intensive industry and you can have much more viable economy which isn’t based on extraction and which is more diverse. So we’re not saying pull the plug, give us our park and just to let these communities flounder. We’re saying we need some of investment to encourage economic growth on the North Shore but of a different kind – one not based on extraction and mining-intense projects.
CG: So you mentioned a bit mining and Plan Nord and very famously Pauline Marois, when she was elected changed the name of Plan Nord and continued in exactly the same vein. I was wondering if you think that these projects related to the Romaine river also follow in the same vein and show that Pauline Marois’ philosophy isn’t that different from Jean Charest’s?
CS: That is a big issue you put your finger on but it’s also a big kettle of fish, thanks for bringing it up. You’re right that the Romaine river project would never have happened if it wasn’t necessary for the perceived growth and extraction with the Plan Nord. When a lot of people who were disillusioned with Jean Charest’s vision for northern development voted for the Parti Québecois (PQ) thinking they would do differently. Of course, in an election the PQ said various things that allowed people to believe that the PQ would in fact put higher royalty rates on mining that would reduce the pace of extraction so that there would be something left to extract for future generations, that we would be less attached to these big dam projects. I think reading the tea leaves there is actually a division within the PQ. I think some of the more progressive members of Parliament like Martine Ouellet, the National Resources Minister, would like to see us at least take a critical second look at whether these projects are necessary. But there is another side of the PQ which is dominant which is definitely in to continuing to basically pull down their pants for these companies and basically allow business as usual. Capitalism with a french face is what most of the PQ is promoting, rather than a critical second look at the way we should be working on our economy, So unless the PQ gets pressure I think this project will go ahead. Now, because we are looking at huge energy surpluses which have been brought up in parliamentary commissions because the we are always looking to save money and because of the work Alliance Romaine and other groups have done to bring these issues to the public fore i think there’s a discussion now. And with enough pressure the PQ may be maneuvered in to dropping the later phases of this d am project. So there are four dams on the Romaine and we’re definitely hoping we can stop them from developing the Romaine 3 and the Romaine 4 dams. We would life to stop them from developing all of them but that may be too late given how far the projects gone along. But, we would also like this debate that’s gone on to apply to future hydro electric projects they are planning on other big rivers because as humungous and unnecessary as the ROmaine project is there are plans by Hydro Québec to make more dams for more superfluous kilowatts on other rivers, including the Mécatina and other beautiful though smaller rivers on the north shore. SO having this kind of discussion, we believe can actually have a political influence right now when even the PQ caucus is divided. Divided more to the heavy weights but which we believe is open to some doubts. And what we’re trying to do as Alliance Romaine is picketing Hydro Québec for the last week and a had, since the 20th of January,in white elephant costumes. In doing so, we are saying look, this project is a white elephant. It’s not only ecologically destructive but it’s also a waste of taxpayers’ money and Hydro Québec is going to be raising the rates on residents this spring. They’ve applied for a 5.8% increase in your hydro bill that’s essentially going to pay for some of the 8 billion dollars of this money losing project – though they’ll never admit this directly. We’re trying to drag this out in to the light because inertia, not talking about the project, favours the businesses going ahead as usual. To the extent that people are required to talk about it and that politicians are required to justify it, the public realizes that they still have a political choice to make. And that we could decide to put our hard earned money else where and save some of our environment in the process. Alliance Romaine’s job is to expose this project to the light of day and to make it attempt to justify itself. We think that as soon as that happens the project will collapse out of it’s own internal contradictions – that’s what we’re working for.
CG: Anything you want to add about the project or Alliance Romaine’s resistance to it?
CS: Well people can often be discouraged because we are a small group of people working on this for a number of years – it’s a david versus goliath battle. But, when change actually happen it is often through small groups really connecting with the population and inspiring larger mobilization. No battle was won seemed like a sure thing when it started. I think we’re actually at the potential crest of some kind of public discussion on whether we should go forward with those last row phases of the project. I would invite your listeners to come on weekday mornings at 8 o’clock and join the elephants in front of Hydro Québec. We have a representative of Hydro Québec to have a debate with us here in Montreal and if they think the project can be justified lets have it out in front of the media cameras. And we have also invited a member of the national assembly for Saint-Ile for a similar debate. The funny thing is neither is too eager to jump to the defines of this project which suggests that they realize that the project is somewhat indefensible. So we need to continue to put pressure so this discussion continues to happen. At this point, as i said, silence maintains the status quo.