Oilsands v Hydroelectric: a reality check on Site C

Yesterday (October 14, 2014) the British Columbian and Canadian Governments gave the Site C hydroelectric project on the Peace River environmental approval because “the benefits provided outweigh the risks of significant adverse environmental, social and heritage impacts.”  It seems the governments have gone back to odd dreams from 1978 of a world made more hospitable for its dominant species.  The Site C project is being touted as a “clean energy” project with clearly audible undertone of “not like the miserable tarsands!”

While I’m no particular friend of the strange things done under the midnight sun by the men who moil for oil, and while I’m no enemy of the hope of better living through technology, I have no illusions that hydroelectric megaprojects are a fine, clean, green power line to a happy future.  So, a quick reality check.

As of 2013, according to the Pembina Institute, the six active surface extraction projects in the Alberta Oilsands have disturbed about 715 km² of boreal forest.  The companies conducting the extraction are required by law to restore that land to “equivalent land capability” when they’ve finished the mining.  Whatever one may think of the possibility of such restoration, or of government’s ability to enforce such a requirement, the gesture has at least been made toward “leave it like you found it”.

In contrast, Site C will destroy through flooding a horizontal surface area of 93 km².  Because of the mountainous area involved, the actual ecological area destroyed will be much larger.  The governments have acknowledged in advance the “significant adverse environmental, social and heritage impacts.”  They even acknowledge that this “clean” project will result in greenhouse gas emmisions from the rotting vegetation – a carbon sink before the flooding – for years afterward.  There are no requirements to return the land to its previous state. The project is permanent, the destruction is forever.

So, with a single megaproject British Columbia intends to destroy forever an area 1/7 the size of all surface extraction projects in the Alberta oilsands.  Somehow this permanent destruction is claiming the “Clean Energy” label while confessing “significant environmental” impacts. By the way, B.C.’s W.A.C. Bennett dam, completed in 1968 in the spirit of utopian, nature-controlling High Modernity discussed in my earlier post, has already destroyed twenty times the area Site C would destroy. That’s almost three times as much natural area destroyed by one hydroelectric dam as has been strip mined – with the legislated requirement of restoration – in Alberta’s tar sands.

The oilsands companies and the Alberta Government, for all their flaws and self-interest, at least grudgingly acknowledge that when one makes a mess, one has the responsibility to clean things up as best one can.

I’m glad I have visited the beautiful valley of the upper Peace River. Before long, it will be gone forever.

Update, December 3, 2014: Yesterday an outfit called Clean Energy Canada made a lot of headlines with a report on “clean” jobs in Canada, specifically contrasting direct employment in the Alberta oilsands vs. direct employment in “clean” energy.  What got little coverage was that the report admits that 85% of the electricity they class as “clean” comes from Big Hydro mega-projects, specifically singling out Robert-Bourassa in Quebec, part of the once notorious James Bay Project. The Robert-Bourassa reservoir destroyed almost four times the area of Boreal Forest strip mined in the oilsands.  What is being ignored by Clean Energy Canada is that these Hydro mega projects they are praising have a far more disastrously direct destructive impact on Canada’s Boreal Forest than do the strip mines in the tar sands.  Sure, once the mountains have been mined for limestone, once the carbon has been belched in the production of concrete, once the initial destruction is completed, once the carbon sink is destroyed and its stored carbon released to the atmosphere, once the power lines are cut through the forests, the electricity from these  things is “renewable” for the life of the project.  But, at some point, silting, maintenance costs, changing demand, etc. will lead to the decommissioning of these projects.  What happens then?  Who cleans up the mess left by this “clean” energy?

As a further reality check, China’s much maligned Three Gorges Dam, directly destroyed by flooding 1,045 square kilometres. The first phase of the James Bay Project, which Clean Energy Canada touts as “Clean Energy”, directly destroyed well over ten times that area, 11,300 square kilometres of pristine Boreal Forest.

I think Clean Energy Canada does a tragic disservice to the very industries they are trying to help when they include such grandiose terraforming megaprojects in their definition of “clean” energy. Does anyone remember the shock and horror of the world when China’s Three Gorges Dam went ahead? The extinctions of river dolphins, the displacement of millions of people, the destruction of thousands of years of human heritage and millions of years of natural heritage with a single megaproject that Clean Energy Canada would seem to class as “clean.”  How many of the well-meaning, devoted environmentalists gleefully tweeting news of the “Clean” jobs report would be so excited if they realized that Site C is considered a “clean” project? It’s truly encouraging that low-impact energy sources are growing in importance, but fudging a report by including “It’s humanity’s planet, we’ll do what we want with it” mega-projects in the set of “clean” energy sources sullies the real successes of the workers in low-impact energy industries.

Update, July 7, 2015: Something I didn’t touch on in this post is the downstream effects of Big Hydro like Site C. These effects are now drawing the attention of UNESCO’s World Heritage Council because they threaten Canada’s largest National Park,  World Heritage Site Wood Buffalo NP.  As the Globe and Mail Editorial Board writes:

Our national parks do not exist in isolation. Air circulates, water flows, animals migrate and man-made pollution is indifferent to the boundaries it crosses, and the climate it alters, with effortless ease.

 It is long past time we all realize and accept this fact and acknowledge that it applies to all human activities. From solar panel manufacture to uranium mining, there’s no free lunch in our world. When we decide to build, we also have to decide what we are willing to destroy.

Update, September 8, 2015: Now this from Harvard – “Hydroelectric energy may be more damaging to northern ecosystems than climate change.” Anyone who says Hydro power is “clean” or “renewable” or “green” is either lying or igorant.

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3 comments on “Oilsands v Hydroelectric: a reality check on Site C

  1. […] 7. Oilsands v Hydroelectric: a reality check on Site C […]

  2. Gord Hull says:

    And cement production (used for the concrete in the dams) is FAR from “green” – GH

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