Hydro-Quebec Pushes New Dams Utility Faces Opposition from Economists, Environmentalists, and nativeCree Indians. POWER HOUSE

Article excerpt

CONSIDERING that oil prices have doubled since July, Quebeckers ought totake comfort from several facts:

- Hydro-Quebec, the provincial utility, gets 95 percent of its power fromhydroelectric generation - a renewable resource.

- Quebec's 6.7 million residents pay one of the lowest electric rates inthe developed world.

- Quebec is one of the world's most "electrified" societies, relying onelectricity for 40 percent of its energy needs, including transport. Bycomparison, the New England figure is near 18 percent.

- In a region that faces extreme winters, electric heat is used in 71percent of all dwellings in and 90 percent of new homes.

- The Quebec territory east and south of James Bay has North America'slargest untapped hydropower potential. If developed as planned, it will supplyan amount equal to 25 percent of the continent's hydroelectricity.

But some in Quebec are not celebrating. Their ranks include economists andenvironmentalists, as well as the native Cree Indians who inhabit the James Bayterritory's 135,000 square miles of black spruce forest.

Plans to further develop hydropower in the region have prompted charges asdiverse as the sources: irreversible damage to a delicate subarctic habitat,trampling Indians' land-rights and destruction of their way of life,white-elephant projects.

"This project can only proceed because there's no public input. It's assimple as that," says Helene Lajambe, an economist who is director general ofthe Center for Energy Policy Analysis in Montreal.

The rigid distrust harbored by antidevelopment forces is focused onstate-owned Hydro-Quebec. An organization of unmatched influence and presence inQuebec, the utility accounts for 5 percent of the province's gross domesticproduct. In monetary terms, it is the largest nonfinancial institution inCanada.

Physically, Hydro-Quebec's facilities occupy 1 percent of the province. Thatcould double in 30 to 40 years. It directly employs 19,400 people, and says itindirectly sustains 60,000 more jobs.

Critics like Stephen Hazell, executive director of the Canadian ArcticResources Committee in Ottawa, refers to the utility as a "bureaucracy run wild... with no checks or counterchecks. Hydro-Quebec is in the business of buildingdams at all costs."

The utility's influence is rooted in history. In a province where theEnglish-speaking minority once dominated white collar employment, Hydro-Quebecwas the first company to put Francophones in high-paying jobs.

"At some point it became a vehicle for Quebec nationalism," says Ms.Lajambe "It took the people of Quebec a long time to realize the harm beingdone by their favorite company because it was sacred to them."

Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa has used cheap electricity successfully toattract power-guzzling industries like aluminum smelters, even though Quebec hasno bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is made. …


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