Arguments over resource extraction have become a cornerstone in energy expansion debates, and debates over projects such as the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines define how many such projects are stalled and sometimes thwarted. Unlike the famous pipelines, a publicized debate has never come to the defense of the storied Romaine River, an almost 500-kilometre-long waterway located along Quebec’s lower north shore. Its fate has been determined in the way Quebec has invariably addressed its production of energy – by prioritizing hydro development regardless of cost and alternatives.
Arguments over resource extraction have become a cornerstone in energy expansion debates, and debates over projects such as the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines define how many such projects are stalled and sometimes thwarted. Unlike the famous pipelines, a publicized debate has never come to the defense of the storied Romaine River, an almost 500-kilometre-long waterway located along Quebec’s lower north shore. Its fate has been determined in the way Quebec has invariably addressed its production of energy – by prioritizing hydro development regardless of cost and alternatives. It is an $8-billion project touted to be the “largest construction project in Canada” and at the forefront is Hydro-Quebec, a government-owned public utility that has overseen energy production and distribution in the province for over 50 years.
The canoe trip this movie documents in the summer of 2008 was a sort of “farewell trip,” as director Nicholas Boisclair disconsolately describes it, a reference to the impending construction of four hydroelectric dams along the Romaine’s pristine length.
The 46 day expedition Boisclair and fellow film maker Alexis de Gheldere made down the wild Romaine is one of the twin narrative threads that tell a story of hydro development and environmental destruction. This journey runs parallel with another expedition, one that follows Boisclair and de Gheldere, along with actor Roy Dupius, as they learn about different forms of renewable energy readily available in the province. Clearly, Boisclair and de Gheldere have a sentimental attachment to the river and its surrounding ecosystem, but their discussions with various alternative energy practitioners and advocates is a hard-nosed look at the economic aspects of provincial energy production. They don’t advocate for a shift to renewables based solely on beliefs of conservation or environmental sustainability – they present an argument that focuses on Hydro Quebec’s figures and argue the government’s own numbers show that the Romaine project is a fiscal disaster.
The cost to produce the electricity from the Romaine will be ten cents per kWh, much higher than the price at which it can be sold, a key element of in the film’s argument that Hydro-Quebec’s age-old model can no longer turn a profit. The cheap and easy hydropower is long gone. Each new project now costs more than the last. Hydro-Quebec already generates surplus electricity equal to three times the Romaine’s capacity. Clearly the energy is meant for export but many US states don’t want it. Boisclair and de Gheldere thoroughly deconstruct the notion that a model for resource extraction that provided reliable, abundant and profitable energy in the past can be applied today.
As well as exploring wind, geothermal, biomass and other forms of renewable energy, the documentary singles out efficiency, which has the potential to save far more energy than the Romaine project will produce. They also calculate that with a budget equal to the Romaine, all Quebeckers – including those in seniors’ homes, hospitals and apartments – could be provided with solar water heaters, which would free up more energy than the hydro dams will produce.
This isn’t the first time the profitability of Quebec’s hydroelectric production has been questioned. In an older video interview, former Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau repeats the question, “Is it cheaper to produce a kilowatt-hour or to save one? You know, I never got an answer. Never. As much as I might, as the Premier of Quebec, I never got an answer, important as this is.” Boisclair and de Gheldere now have several answers and none of them favour large hydro projects. They conclude with the thought that to destroy this magnificent and irreplaceable ecosystem for a few terawatt hours is madness.
Seeking the Current, directed by Nicholas Boisclair and Alexis de Gheldere, Canada: Rapide Blanc, 2011, 82 minutes.
Adam Steiner is an Environment and Resource studies student at the University of Waterloo and an editorial intern at A\J. He is interested in the ways cities address biodiversity and resources, from urban plants and wildlife, to soil contamination and food security. When not behind a computer screen, he can be found gardening or riding his bike and photographing the city.