CANADA'S Supreme Court has given the Cree Indians of northern Quebec a boost in their fight to stop the Grande Baleine (Great Whale) hydroelectric project, which, if built, would flood a large portion of their traditional lands.
The Court on Feb. 24 unanimously upheld a 1990 National Energy Board (NEB) decision requiring Hydro-Quebec, the province's power company, to submit new facilities that would export electricity to the United States to a federal environmental review.
The ruling is a severe jolt to Hydro-Quebec and the provincial government, which must now cede some of its control over hydroelectric development. The decision gives the Crees and environmental groups time to fight the C$13 billion (US$9.75 billion) Grande Baleine project, which will be delayed due to the pending environmental review.
``It will certainly be a major stumbling block for [Hydro-Quebec's] grand vision of damming all major waterways in northern Quebec flowing into James Bay,'' says Stewart Elgie, counsel for the Sierra Legal Defense Fund, who argued on behalf of environmentalists in the case.
The 9-0 ruling may undermine Hydro-Quebec's efforts to sign new export contracts with New England and New York. Increasing concern over the environmental impact of big hydro-electric dams has created resistance to such contracts. American states will look now to see if the court's ruling has been complied with, Cree officials hope.
``We consider this ruling a big victory,'' says Kenny Blacksmith, deputy grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec. ``Now in the US, in Vermont, and New York, when they consider buying power from Hydro-Quebec, they'll have to think seriously, too, about the environment and how that contract will affect the native people.''
In response to the court ruling, Hydro-Quebec officials say they still plan to build the Grande Baleine project, but that lower-than-forecast demand for power will delay its completion another year until 2003.
``As long as the Supreme Court hasn't canceled any of our contracts, we are satisfied,'' said Hydro-Quebec President Armand Couture. He said the C$400 million the company has spent on Grande Baleine remains a wise investment. Critics of the project question whether building dams to supply export markets makes good business sense. Grande Baleine, company spokesmen respond, is not being built to supply export markets anyway, so there is no need for federal intrusion.
But with demand for power growing at just 2 percent annually in Quebec, some critics find it hard to understand why Hydro-Quebec is planning to spend C$25 billion between 1993-2002 to build hydroelectric facilities.
Robert McCullough, a former power-company executive retained by the Crees, says that the interest on all the borrowed billions is making ``cheap'' hydropower expensive.
Hydro-Quebec lost a C$22.7 billion, 21-year deal to supply 1,000 megawatts of power to New York when Gov. Mario Cuomo canceled it in 1992, citing lack of future power demands. The company still has contracts with Vermont, New York, and the New England power pool. But a key C$6.2 billion contract to deliver 800 megawatts of power to New York from 1999 through 2018 is uncertain. The NEB may require a federal environmental review before granting an export license.
The court ruling also significantly extends federal jurisdiction into the sensitive area of resource development over which Quebec has long claimed control. Former Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa was chief architect of the hydro-power as a key to Quebec's economic self-determination. But new Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson on Feb. 25 was forced to acknowledge the new federal role.
Environmentalists also say the court has handed them a legal precedent that will allow them to fight other types of resource-for-export projects, such as oil exploration in sensitive Arctic areas.
``Before Canada makes a decision to export a major resource, it must carefully consider the consequences,'' Mr. Elgie says. ``There is a real risk in this era of free trade of selling off Canada's natural resources for a pittance without properly protecting the environment.''