25 September 2006

La Romaine, the Rock and the hard place

The Sunday edition of Newfoundland and Labrador's largest circulation daily newspaper, The Telegram, devoted its editorial to the implications for this province of Hydro Quebec's proposed development of the La Romaine river complex.

For some unknown reason, the editorial is not online. Instead, the Telly has reproduced a piece by one of its columnists in place of the editorial.

In any event, "It's time to talk turkey", argues that it is unconscionable that Hydro Quebec is proceeding with this project since:

1. the headwaters of the river complex are in Labrador and thus far there have been no consultations with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador; and,

2. the La Romaine project will be a direct competitor for the Lower Churchill, should that project be developed.

Let's tackle these contentions in turn.

The border between Labrador and Quebec was established in a 1927 decision of the judicial committee of the Privy Council. The law lords concluded:

For the above reasons, their Lordships are of opinion that, according to the true construction of the statutes, Orders in Council, and Proclamations referred to in the Order of Reference, the boundary between Canada and Newfoundland in the Labrador Peninsula is a line drawn due north from the eastern boundary of the bay or harbour of Ance Sablon as far as the fifty-second degree of north latitude, and from thence westward along that parallel until it reaches the Romaine River, and then northward along the left or east bank of that river and its head waters to their source, and from thence due north to the crest of the watershed or height of land there, and from thence westward and northward along the crest of the watershed of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean until it reaches cape Chidley; and they will humbly advise His Majesty Accordingly.
This definition would suggest that the Romaine river complex lies inside Quebec in its entirety. Quebec maps on the border correctly describe it as being "undefined" or "not definitive". That is because the border has never been surveyed. That said, the description cited above fits the overall contention by the Privy Council decision that rivers flowing to the St. Lawrence and to the west are within Quebec, while Labrador comprises rivers flowing to the east and the Atlantic.

On that basis, the contention that the headwaters of the La Romaine lie inside Labrador would seem to be an error.

If the headwaters actually lie inside Labrador, then Hydro Quebec would have to consult and that would be a basis for people having some concern about the development. But that is about it. The La Romaine proposal does not cross into Labrador and the uppermost dam structure will not come closer than 10 kilometres to the general position of border between Labrador and Quebec. We can complain about not being properly advised but short of having our feelings hurt, there is not much of a claim Newfoundland and Labrador can make beyond that.

Newfoundland and Labrador would be hard pressed to justify trying to block the La Romaine project, if that is ultimately where Danny Williams winds up. All that Hydro Quebec management has done here is nothing more dastardly than showing they are smarter at business and politics than the St. John's premier. We may not like it - and certainly Danny won't - but that is hardly a crime and it would hardly be worth some kind of political or legal jihad of the losing type Williams seems to thrive on.

On the second point, though, one need only remind nervous nellies like the editorialist that it has been known for some time that demand for electricity is driving a great many developments besides the Lower Churchill.

Premier Danny Williams rushed an announcement earlier this year that he would "go it alone" on the Lower Churchill simply because the previous week Quebec had announced its own plans for further development of Quebec's own hydro potential.

Williams had a viable proposal in front of him - from Ontario and Quebec - that could have formed the basis for an eventual agreement. Instead he opted to restart the entire project from scratch and introduce delays in project sanction and construction. He did so knowing full well that other projects were moving ahead at a good pace, that Quebec had already invested in environmental studies and that Quebec was already talking to Ontario on power sales agreements. Williams' own officials arrived in Ontario well after Quebec.

In many respects, the bleating by The Telegram at this juncture is just a waste of ink and paper Williams has already laid out the course for the Lower Churchill project. The project may wind up being shelved or - worse still - it may wind up being a got-it-alone give-away of monumental proportions simply because the Premier and his advisors made yet another strategic misstep. Williams has made the bed and the Telegram's editorialist and all the other residents of the province will have to lay in it, for good or ill.

There is no small irony that the tone underneath the worrying over the Romaine project - fretting the Quebec bogeyman - was very much part of Williams' public explanation for why he chose the so-called "go it alone" option in the first place.

As Bond Papers has noted previously, though, this use of the Quebec bogeyman may serve transient political purposes for all-too-typical politicians like Williams but it actually serves to hamper the sensible, logical and orderly development of natural resources in Newfoundland and Labrador in a fashion that produces lasting benefits for the people of the province.

The Telegram is right in syaing that the time has come to "talk turkey" on Labrador hydro power. However, we should be less concerned about talking with Quebec on the La Romaine than with asking some very hard questions of our provincial government on their handling of the entire Labrador hydropower file.