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On Muskrat Falls and the Public Discussion That Isn't Happening

Ecology Action Centre energy coordinator says project needs to be seen as part of a larger strategy

by Robert Devet

Catherine Abreu of the Ecology Action Centre believes that when it comes to energy issues such as Muskrat Falls, we need to stop fixating on power rates alone and begin to think about the big picture. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Abreu)
Catherine Abreu of the Ecology Action Centre believes that when it comes to energy issues such as Muskrat Falls, we need to stop fixating on power rates alone and begin to think about the big picture. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Abreu)

Muskrat Falls, biomass, wind farms, power rates: these topics often trigger strong opinions.

But in Nova Scotia today we seldom talk about these issues as pieces of a larger strategy, let alone a strategy that is shaped by the realities of global warming. 

Catherine Abreu would like that to change.  Abreu, the Regional Energy Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, recently co-authored the sections on energy in the 2013 Nova Scotia Alternative Budget

Abreu believes that talking about Muskrat Falls in purely economic terms misses much of the point. “The overall discussion [about energy] is wrapped up in this kind of aggressive and tense back and forth about power rates, so much so that in order to get the traction that the project needs the proponents immediately frame it in those terms,” says Abreu.

“It doesn't make any sense to push Muskrat Falls forward on the merit of its economic value alone,” says Abreu. “The real value proposition of Muskrat Falls is about the transition into a fossil-free energy future. It isn't about which option is cheaper, it is about which option helps this province and this region move into the kind of future that we are trying to build.”

What especially excites Abreu about Muskrat Falls is the way the link will integrate Newfoundland with the rest of the Maritimes.  “Muskrat Falls will open up the ability to store hours and days and maybe weeks of electricity, and that will substantially improve the entire region's integration of other renewable energy sources,” says Abreu.

Which gets us to the need for a broader conversation than the one currently taking place.     

“I think it is really critical that we engage the public in a mature conversation about what our priorities are and how we should be planning for the future,” says Abreu, “rather than doing it on this ad hoc basis, as projects come up.”

Abreu believes that the days of single silver-bullet solutions are long gone, be they natural gas, oil or coal, and that means the discussion needs to change to reflect a world where wind, tidal, solar and hydro sources are orchestrated to provide us with a continuous, dependable and sustainable energy supply.

“At this time Nova Scotians are being inundated by the media on energy issues, and the conversation revolves mainly about rates” says Abreu. “I see this as an opportunity for the energy literacy in this province to grow by leaps and bounds. I would really love for the political parties to start seeing this as an opportunity to mature the way we talk about energy choices, rather than use power rates as a political football.”  

What will help that conversation are clear targets.  Abreu believes that the government has done a good job in setting bold shorter-term targets, praising the objective of pushing greenhouse gas emissions 10 % below 1990 levels by 2020. 

But we need longer term objectives as well, she argues, such as aiming for a 100% carbon-free, renewable electricity system in Nova Scotia by 2050.  These targets then would become the parameters to guide the discussion.  

This discussion would have to recognize that solutions to our energy woes are no longer black and white – and Muskrat Falls is a case in point.

For example, there is no doubt that Muskrat Falls will have a major and long-term negative impact on the Lower Churchill watershed, something that will hit local First Nations communities especially hard.  That, combined with what many perceive to be an insufficient review process, has led to many protests, including hunger strikes and violent arrests.

But while recognizing its irreversible negative impact, Abreu is not ready to reject Muskrat Falls out of hand for that reason alone. 

“We are waiting for the project proponents to assure us that this project will be done in a way that is of a net benefit to the environment and the people of Atlantic Canada,” says Abreu.  “If we want to move away from fossil fuels we have to make tough choices; as environmentalists we need to wade into this grey zone.”

One place where the Alternative Budget steers more money are the departments of Environment and Energy, departments that have seen their budget frozen or cut year after year. This is something especially urgent, Abreu argues, because of the need to fill the vacuum created by the federal withdrawal from the environmental review process.

Innovation is another piece of the puzzle that Abreu believes needs to become part of the public energy discussion.  The Alternative budget calls for substantial investments in research and support for innovative industries.  Abreu argues that we currently operate a system that has been reliant on large scale fossil fuel-based forms of energy for decades. It's a system that’s easy and cheap to keep using, whereas to get a new infrastructure established will require government support.

Still, Abreu says recent changes in the energy sector are cause for optimism. “We are in the midst of dramatic change. We already have come from a place where we relied close to 90% on coal, and we reduced that in a span of 8 years by between 30 and 40%.  We are poised to reduce that even more, and even more quickly, in the coming decade.” 

 “We are investing in research into tidal energy, the Bowater project will be opening up a centre for biomass research and excellence, we are investing in some pretty interesting and innovative storage options.  We are really in a position where we could become regional and national leaders in this clean energy transition,” says Abreu.

“And to really harness that opportunity, to make it the rallying cry of our transition, that would be exciting.”


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