“Plan Nord” and Northern Pass: New England needs its own plan

Christophe Courchesne

As noted in numerous media reports (for example, here and here), the Province of Québec has formally announced its “Plan Nord,” a 25 year, $80 billion plan to develop Québec’s northern region (official “nutshell” here).  Plan Nord reflects major new public investments in mining operations, hydroelectric and wind energy facilities, forestry, and transportation and communications infrastructure.

The scale of Plan Nord is hard to overstate; Premier Jean Charest is proudly proclaiming that Plan Nord is the “project of a generation,” “a sweeping, human adventure,” and “unique both in its scope and its approach.”  The plan adds that “the scope of the Plan Nord will make it in the coming decades what the development of La Manicouagan and James Bay were to the 1960s and 1970s.”  The land area covered by the plan is about twice the size of Texas.

The formal public launch of Plan Nord is an opportunity to think about what Québec’s plans may mean for New England and our regional energy future. A fundamental part of Plan Nord is developing the region’s energy resources, including new hydroelectric generating capacity totaling 3,000 megawatts.  (This amount of power is equivalent to five Vermont Yankees.) While important to the plan’s projections of provincial energy needs, these facilities are also integral to Québec utility Hydro-Québec’s strategy to step up exports of electric power to the northeastern United States, including New England.  The plan itself notes Vermont’s recent renewal of a long-term agreement to import 225 megawatts of power from Hydro-Québec as a key early success.

Although Québec has marketed Plan Nord as at the vanguard of “sustainable development,” any plan this massive and costly should inspire a fair amount of skepticism, especially when its scale is compared to the breathtaking ecological manipulations of Québec’s recent history. Indeed, the plan’s economic focus on new investments in mining suggests less than a total commitment to sustainability. On the other hand, as our colleagues at the Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign noted yesterday, the plan commits to protection of 50% of Québec’s northern land area for environmental protection and safeguarding biodiversity. It remains to be seen if this commitment is meaningful; if it is, it would be a historic and farsighted move.

CLF is deeply concerned about what this plan – including its focus on resource extraction and exploitation – means for Québec, New England, and indeed the global environment.  Hydroelectric developments on the scale contemplated by Plan Nord involve inundation of vast land areas, which in turn results in the destruction of wide swathes of Canada’s boreal forest – one of the world’s largest intact carbon sinks – as well as methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from decomposing vegetation and releases of heavy metals from flooded soils. Hydropower reservoirs in Québec already cover an area greater than the size of New Hampshire, and further inundation will be required for Plan Nord projects.   These projects have dramatic impacts on indigenous people and their way of life; at least some indigenous groups appear deeply dissatisfied with the public process that led to the Plan Nord.

With Plan Nord moving forward, the time is now for the U.S. Department of Energy to answer CLF’s call for a regional, comprehensive analysis of the nature and extent of the need for energy imports from Québec.  Québec clearly has a plan for its future, and – laudable environmental “commitments” aside – that plan is all about enriching Québec; New England and the northeastern U.S. need a coherent plan of our own that reflects our energy policies and environmental values.

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