Mega Dams Part Three: The Atlantic Loop and the Green Energy Transition

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This is the third post in a three-part series on mega dams by Lori Lee Oates.

In part one and two of this series, I discussed some of the mega dam failures that have occurred in Canada and the displacement of Indigenous Canadians that has taken place to make damming possible. I also discussed the global context in which this has occurred and how mega dams are now part of a new kind of extractive capitalism that is achieved with public loan guarantees and legal agreements. This third part will discuss the “Atlantic Loop,” which is a plan to develop hydroelectric power sources on the East Coast to displace the region’s coal usage. As with the Muskrat Falls project, other options for meeting energy demand have not been fully explored. This set of proposed hydroelectric projects is presented as part of Canada’s energy solution, as the world moves towards a transition off fossil fuels.

The Atlantic Loop is presented as part of Canada’s energy solution, as the world moves towards a transition off fossil fuels.

There has long been an expectation that the world’s energy needs will grow by 47 percent by 2050. It is also known that electricity demand is growing faster than renewables. This necessitates a need to expedite the development of renewable energy infrastructure such as wind and solar power. To reduce downstream fossil fuel emissions, it is also necessary to electrify transport. Certainly, the 2021 Liberal election platform promised more money for electric vehicles and renewable sources of energy (p.45).

Map of proposed Atlantic Loop of hydroelectric developments in Atlantic Canada
Map Source: Emera.

Investment in the Wrong Energies

As noted in part one, there was a commission of inquiry into the Muskrat Falls project which determined there had been a rush to judgement on the need for additional hydroelectric power in Newfoundland and Labrador. Options identified in the inquiry report which had not been sufficiently considered, prior to the Muskrat Falls project being approved, included:

  • Imports of electricity from Quebec
  • Natural gas from the Grand Banks
  • Liquefied natural gas
  • Additional wind generation,
  • Small hydro, and
  • Energy conservation and demand management (pp.7-11).

Since the release of the public inquiry report, it has been shown that natural gas and fracking are highly problematic options for addressing climate change. This was discussed in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary Big Oil v. The World – Episode 3. They note that the American government put the world on a path that wasted a decade by investing in natural gas when they really should have been investing in renewables. We’ve recently seen this debate come to the forefront again in the United Kingdom, and, arguably, it played a role in ending the government of Liz Truss. At this juncture in energy history, the Government of Canada should be moving our country away from oil and gas rather than continuing to approve new oil projects. However, our leaders, at all levels of government, should also be investigating options for transitioning off of fossil fuels, such as small hydro projects (rather than mega dams), energy conservation, and management of energy demand.

Degrowth and Infrastructure Investment

Recent dialogue has focused on the need to move away from unchecked capitalism and “degrowth.” For example, the new book The Value of a Whale (2022) by Adrienne Butler exposes the myth of green growth, which so many G20 governments claim they can engage with while addressing the climate crisis. Degrowth movements, however, point to the need to reduce energy demand and reduce consumption overall. Anthropologist Jason Hickel has published Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World(2020). The book proposes a model for post-capitalist economics which will prevent ecological breakdown. It presents a view of what is necessary for the wellbeing of both citizens and the planet.

Certainly, there are ways to reduce energy demand, such as increasing access to electrified public transit, increased cycling infrastructure, and designing more walkable municipalities that include mixed use neighbourhoods and more dense affordable housing. These are all things that governments can do now to help citizens reduce both emissions and energy use. These policy measures also have the benefit of improving the physical and mental health of citizens. Investment in high-speed rail could also help to reduce dependence on air transit. These are investments that would be good for the economy, counter to narratives that addressing climate change is bad for the economy. However, in order to scale up these initiatives sufficiently, we need to build the capacity of the municipalities that will be at the forefront of implementing many of these climate measures.

Situating the Atlantic Loop

Reducing energy use and consumption is not the model that the Atlantic Loop and current discussions around the transition off fossil fuels in Canada are considering in any significant way. Indeed, the Government of Canada plans to increase oil production. We have been told that the Atlantic Loop is necessary to phase Atlantic Canada off coal. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia still have coal fired generation plants. However, there is some thought that Ontario and the United States will want to compete for Atlantic Loop power which is very much a growth model of economics. The plan is to connect the Atlantic Loop to the still delayed Muskrat Falls site and perhaps Gull Island, eventually. Hydroelectricity is often seen as a path towards more revenue for the often cash-strapped province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Decisions on the pursuit of hydroelectric projects in Labrador are made in St. John’s and Ottawa, usually with little to no consideration for what these projects will mean for Indigenous persons in the region and their access to food sources.

The Atlantic Loop will require federal funding and there is no federal commitment to funding the project to date. Certainly, it cannot be another public loan guarantee, as was given to the Muskrat Falls project and the Trans Mountain Pipeline, with disastrous results for taxpayers. Recently, it was announced that Emera, the private electricity utility in Nova Scotia, is delaying the loop project, even though many argue the project is necessary for the province to meet 2030 climate targets. Again, little consideration has been given to other options for achieving this goal.

The Government of Nova Scotia has wisely acted to limit profits from electricity in legislation. Premier Tim Houston maintains that it is possible for Nova Scotia to meet climate targets, even without the loop. “That’s why we’ve been focusing on solar, wind, legislation to make hydrogen happen,” he said. It has long been held that hydroelectricity is required as a backup to wind and solar power and that it can help to put more wind and solar power on the grid. Many believe this will continue to be the case, even as high levels of battery storage become more and more of a reality. However, real consideration needs to be given to reducing energy uses. There is only a tiny carbon budget left if we wish to limit global warming to 1.5°C and achieve net zero by 2050.

“The road to a transition off fossil fuels cannot rely on the destruction of Indigenous lands yet again. Breaking the chains of Canada’s colonial history must be part of any transition that is JUST.”

Building wind farms and electric cars, manufacturing solar panels, and building mega dams all create emissions. While it is nowhere near the emissions created by fossil fuels (both upstream and downstream) there is not a lot of carbon budget left if we wish to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Engaging with degrowth, rather than building new infrastructure and tech to replace fossil fuels must be part of the path forward. This also has the advantage that it will help Canada to avoid the colonial patterns of hydroelectricity projects of the past, that we continue to pursue into the neocolonial present. The road to a transition off fossil fuels cannot rely on the destruction of Indigenous lands yet again. Breaking the chains of Canada’s colonial history must be part of any transition that is JUST.

Feature Image: “Burr!” by International Rivers is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
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Lori Lee is an Instructors in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. Her Ph.D. is in global and imperial history from the University of Exeter, focusing on the global movement of ideas in the nineteenth century. Her current research interests include the resource curse, environmentalism in the history of international thought, and women and climate justice. At present, Lori Lee is working on her first monograph for SUNY Press. She has also been a contributor to CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, The Globe and Mail, Canada's National Observer, and The Hill Times. Lori Lee has been a vocal advocate in her public scholarship of the need to move away from the development of further oil projects in Canada, and the problems with mega dams in recent Canadian History. She has advised national environmental groups on the political economy of climate change and a just transition off fossil fuels and appeared in national media on the topic. Lori Lee is also pleased to be a member of the NICHE editorial team.

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