New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio is aggressively touting his “Green New Deal,” boasting an aim of cutting the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions 40% of 2005 levels by 2030. Centerpiece of the plan is so-called “zero-emission Canadian hydro-electricity.” Politico reported Oct. 25 that the city had finalized a contract with international law firm White & Case, to explore purchasing Canadian hydro-power via the Champlain-Hudson Power Express, a proposed conduit that would run under the Hudson River from Quebec. The city is also exploring the possibility of financing the $3 billion transmission line. Power purchased from provincial utility Hydro-Quebec would meet 100% of the city government’s own energy needs. Canada’s National Observer reported in April that negotiations between New York City and H-Q would start “right away,” with the aim of signing a deal by the end of 2020.
H-Q has been undergoing a “significant build-out” since the early 2000s, according to the National Observer, adding surplus capacity totalling over 5,000 megawatts. New facilities include the Romaine River complex, on a northern tributary of the St. Lawrence, and the Rupert River diversion project in the far-north James Bay region.
The negotiations were of course greeted with much jubilation from Quebec officialdom. The Montreal Gazette reported that New York City was conteemplating a shift to 100% “clean energy” from its current 27%. Quebec Premier François Legault tweeted (translated from the French): “WOW! Hydro-Québec could become the green battery of northeast of America.”
But Sierra Club NYC and other area environmental groups are opposing any new contract with H-Q. “The Canadian hydropower industry is marketing its power in the US as renewable, clean and green without acknowledging the negative environmental, social and economic impacts being felt in Canada,” states the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance.
New York City has received much of its electricity from H-Q since the first deal with downstate utility Con Edison was signed in the early 1970s, and the Marcy South transmission line was built by the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to deliver the juice. This deal facilitated H-Q’s construction of phase one of the James Bay mega-project, a massive hydro-electric development on La Grande River. This proved to be a disaster for the Cree and Inuit indigenous peoples of the sub-arctic James Bay region, who were not consulted on the project beforehand, and fought to stop it in the Canadian courts—ultimately unsucessfully. The Cree Grand Council finally agreed to a compensation deal for the project in 1974, since its completion seemed inevitable anway.
As the project was completed, vast areas of traditional Cree and Inuit hunting territory disappeared under the new floodplains, a critical blow to their culture and way of life. Thousands of caribou drowned as a result of the project. Even fishing became untenable, as toxic mercury was leached from the soil into the floodplains by the massive water pressure, leading to some of the worst mercury contamination in North America. And despite the claims of “zero-emission hydroelectricity,” of course carbon was released into the atmosphere as forests were submerged and decomposed. (For a full account, read Strangers Devour the Land by Boyce Richardson, Knopf 1975)
In 1989, NYPA signed a new $19.5 billion contract to purchase 1,800 megawatts from H-Q, which Quebec hoped would fund the second phase of the James Bay project—damming all of the rivers that flow into the bay from Quebec territory, the Nottaway, Broadback, Rupert and Great Whale as well as La Grande. The Cree mobilized to stop the James Bay II project, but provincial authorities held that they had signed away all their rights to the territory in 1974.
The Cree and Inuit, however, joined with New York area environmentalists to launch a campaign to stop the new contract. Con Ed, which was to re-purchase much of the power from NYPA, announced it was reconsidering the deal in 1990. Finally, NYPA capitulated, cancelling the contract just before the close of a two-year “review period” in which it could do so without penalty.
Today, with the imminent closure of New York’s Indian Point nuclear power plant, Con Ed will have to close a gap in its power supply, and the cycle seems to be coming around again. Rather than completely abandoning James Bay II, H-Q has been pursing it piecemeal, with the Rupert River diversion seen as a first step. In addition to the proposed Champlain-Hudson power line, an expansion of the Marcy South line was completed by NYPA in 2016 to facilitate new capacity. The First Nations of the James Bay region fear that this new infrastructure, and the pending contract with New York City, will ultimately pose a new threat to their territory.
Since James Bay I was built, international norms have been established for prior consultation with indigenous peoples on projects that impact their territories. But neither the US nor Canada are signatories to the two most significant such documents—the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and International Labor Organization Convention 169. Canada has at least committed to ratify the UNDRIP, but has not yet done so. Neither country is among the signatories to ILO 169.
Nonetheless, in July Montreal’s Gazette reported that the de Blasio administration has pledged to consulting with Quebec’s indigenous peoples before agreeing to any power deals. The anouncement was applauded by Cree Grand Council executive director Bill Namagoose and Jean-Charles Piétacho, chief of the Innus of Ekuanitshit.
“We need to make sure any deal we become a part of is consistent with our values and one of those means that we are constantly looking at the fight against climate change and our fights against inequality to be one and the same,” Mark Chambers, director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, told the Gazette.
In 2007, Canada’s federal government signed an agreement with the Cree Nation, officially recognizing their soveriegnty. It remains to be seen if this pact will be seen as overriding the 1974 deal effectively ceding Cree territorial rights to Hydro-Quebec if a new struggle ensues for the province’s far north.