Just two weeks after Hydro-Québec announced an agreement to partner with Indigenous communities to buy energy from a major wind farm, the front-running Coalition Avenir Quebec has mused on the election campaign trail about cancelling the project if it finds evidence to suggest it won't turn a profit.
The centre-right party has long been vocal about its opposition to the 200-megawatt Apuiat project, slated for the North Shore, with leader François Legault having called it “useless and ruinous” while the province has a surplus of hydro-electricity.
A party spokesman, Mathieu St-Amand, told National Observer that a CAQ government would be prepared to act before any construction begins.
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The governing Liberals have said the project is crucial from an economic standpoint, accusing the CAQ of being "short-sighted" with their skepticism.
But even with a new deal drafted with a major customer, St-Amand said the CAQ's position “has not changed" — if elected on Oct. 1, Legault will cancel the project "if it is not profitable for Hydro-Québec." He said that the party will weigh its cost-effectiveness by looking at "all available documentation" about the project, including Hydro-Québec's studies.
The comments follow weeks of negotiation, and then a decision announced on Aug. 22 by the Crown energy company with the proponents of Apuait.
Hydro-Québec has denied allegations that it secretly opposes the project, and said it intends to respect “the plans laid out on the negotiation table.” #Quebec2018 #polqc
Details of the contract, however, remain under wraps, sparking calls from community leaders for greater transparency.
The agreement will remain unsigned until after the general election "in order to comply with each party’s respective governance rules," according to a joint statement released by Hydro-Québec, SEC Apuiat — the partnership of Innu communities behind the Apuiat wind project — and renewable energy firm Boralex.
Hydro-Québec on the defensive
The Apuiat project was first unveiled by the governing Quebec Liberals in late 2015, and a year later, the Innu Nation, which represents the nine Innu communities in northern Quebec, partnered with Boralex to build it. Its development spiralled into an election issue, however, after Éric Martel, CEO of Hydro-Québec, told Innu leaders in early August that the project would result in losses of up to $2 billion for the Crown corporation.
Despite Martel’s reservations, lengthy discussions between Hydro-Québec, Boralex and Innu communities resulted in a draft contract that will be submitted to each stakeholder’s respective board of directors after a new provincial government is elected in October.
The day the agreement was announced, Aug. 22, TVA Nouvelles reported that an unnamed source “involved in the negotiations” had alleged that the utility provider still does not support the project, despite agreeing to the conditions of the contract.
Hydro-Québec refuted the claim in a statement and said that it intends respect “the plans laid out on the negotiation table.”
Both SEC Apuiat and Hydro-Québec told National Observer that they would not comment further on the details of the agreement.
The ongoing debate about Apuiat is similar to a case in Ontario about the White Pines Wind Project, which began construction this year, but was abruptly cancelled by new legislation introduced in the Ontario legislature by Premier Doug Ford's newly-elected Progressive Conservative government.
Leaders call for more transparency
Legault has since called on Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard for “greater transparency” and to make the details of the draft agreement public.
Raphaël Picard, chief of the Pessamit Innu Band between 2002 and 2012, also criticized the secrecy around the agreement: "If [Hydro-Quebec and the Innu Nation] aren't commenting, it’s not good news," he told National Observer in an interview.
While Picard said he is “not against the project,” he wants members of the Innu Nation be better informed about Hydro-Québec’s figures so they can re-evaluate whether their communities can cover any long-term debt associated with it, along with the down payment for its construction — which he estimates could be as steep as $20 million for each of the six communities involved.
“The construction costs are enormous," he explained. "The Innu community needs to re-look at the cost, see if the cost is doable. It’s a 25-year project, and if there’s no profit, they’ll have invested for nothing."
Catherine Poulin, a spokeswoman for Quebec Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Pierre Moreau, told National Observer that the agreement was not public in order to prevent its "politicization; to prevent it from becoming a partisan issue.”
She added that the Apuiat project is crucial to Quebec’s economic and social development — locally for the Innu communities, regionally for the North Shore, and broadly, for the province's wind energy industry. She said the CAQ’s focus on the present electricity surplus is short-sighted.
“We are in surplus in 2018 and we are exporting electricity. And we know that by 2022, 2023 Ontario is going to need new electricity, in particular with the closure of the Pickering nuclear plant," she said, and the time to "build and plan" for that need is not in five years time, but now.
At a news conference in Montreal on Aug. 22, Couillard reaffirmed his party’s support of the project and dodged a question about whether Éric Martel would retain his seat as Hydro-Québec's CEO if a Liberal government is formed on Oct.1.