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Hydro-Quebec Green? Implications of a Deal Require More Thought

By Elizabeth Courtney

(published March 21, 2010 in the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus)

The Vermont Legislature is pushing through a major shift in Vermont’s renewable energy

policy without thoughtful consideration of the implications.

Having heard cursory testimony on the impacts, with no word from the entity looking for the

change, and no public debate, lawmakers are poised to confer a gift upon Hydro-Quebec that

amounts to a green seal of quality by defining massive hydro power as “renewable.” To date,

Vermont policy has been that large-scale hydro is not “renewable” in large part because of its

significant environmental and social costs.

The “renewable” provision, incongruously tucked into an otherwise proactive renewable energy

bill (H.781), would eventually have the effect of assuring that financial incentives, based on

this purported eco-friendly status, flow to Hydro-Quebec. This move by Vermont – known for

its solid environmental ethic – would pave the way for other states to declare massive projects

with big impacts like Hydro- Quebec to be considered Earth-friendly. Is this where Vermont

should be leading the country?

We have been told that this proposal is being offered in exchange for some still unspecified

“better deal” with Hydro-Quebec. Yet there have been no details outlined for lawmakers or the

public to consider.

Meanwhile, on behalf of Hydro-Quebec, Vermont’s two largest utilities – CVPS and GMP – are

vigorously lobbying to redefine extremely high-impact hydro-electrical generation as

“renewable,” giving it the marketable and profitable sheen of “green” power.

This move is half-baked, smacks of back room deal making, and is disappointing, if not

downright embarrassing for Vermonters.

The fact of the matter is that large-scale hydropower has had far-reaching consequences for

the health of rivers and the people who surround them. Bestowing what amounts to a “green

stamp” on such a power source would be a potentially tectonic shift in Vermont’s energy

policy. While Vermont will undoubtedly continue to rely on Hydro-Quebec for a portion of our

power, regardless of this change, making such sweeping decisions without fully weighing the

economic and environmental consequences of the shift is irresponsible. Vermont needs to

understand and balance the benefits versus the costs.

Some in the Statehouse believe they must pass this legislation soon. Why the urgency?

Lawmakers have heard only brief testimony about the environmental impacts of existing and

planned new Hydro-Quebec dams – greenhouse gas emissions, methyl mercury release into the food chain, and erosion caused by flooding for dams just to name a few – and only passing testimony relating to the potential impacts to Vermont jobs and our own home-grown renewable energy industry. Nor has the public heard what we stand to gain by such a rushed designation. Such a dramatic shift in policy deserves serious discussion.

And where is Hydro-Quebec? To date, not one representative of the Canadian utility has

testified in the Legislature as to why this designation is important to them. Shouldn’t the onus

be on Hydro-Quebec to come tell Vermonters why they deserve a green mantle? Why would

Vermont force such a dramatic change without even hearing from the entity that stands to

benefit from it?

The Legislature should slow down and hear from the public, from the utilities and from Hydro-

Quebec. Lawmakers should rationally consider the full consequences — intended and

unintended — of this change. That’s good government, Vermont-style.

This bill could be considered by the full House next week. Lawmakers should remove this

provision – at least until there is a full vetting of the issues – and pass this otherwise strong,

truly renewable energy bill.

Elizabeth Courtney is the executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.