Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

History has shown that governments in a hurry to get major energy projects off the ground have sometimes lost the necessary popular support.

Analysis | Northvolt: the virtues of a BAPE

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The Northvolt land in Saint-Basile-le-Grand, in Quebec.

  • Étienne Leblanc (View profile)Étienne Leblanc

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We have the impression of rewatch scenes from an old movie.

Up front, we have a big project in the energy field. The most important private investment in the history of Quebec, by François Legault’s own admission. The kind of project for which the Bureau d'public hearings on the environment (BAPE) was precisely created.

We also have numerous jobs created in the process, political leaders impatient to see the project get underway, the fear that environmental assessments would delay things too much and the withholding of certain information on the anticipated environmental effects.

In the background, there are journalists doing their job and, day after day, unearthing this withheld information. They sometimes benefit from leaks, orchestrated by certain shadowy actors, frustrated at seeing things happen on the sly. The more the population learns, the more popular support for the project crumbles, particularly because we have the impression that things are being hidden from us. The discontent grew and, ultimately, the project was abandoned.

Does that ring a bell?

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In Montreal, on June 18, 2011, demonstrators protested against the refusal of the Quebec government to impose a 20-year moratorium on the exploration and exploitation of shale gas.

This is what happened to the shale gas industry in the early 2010s, for which the liberal government of the time had a very favorable bias. Citizens of the St. Lawrence Valley woke up to drills on the edge of their land without really knowing the reason.

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Shale gas? Mining concessions? The Mining Act? We had learned everything at once. The discontent of the citizens had spread like wildfire; it was such that the industry representative had to be escorted out of one of the information meetings.

The government finally imposed an examination of the BAPE, but it was too late. The population no longer wanted it.

Result: not only was this sector abandoned, but recently, the government of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) passed a law that prohibits the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons in Quebec. The final nail in the coffin, a spectacular ending.

It would be surprising if the same fate were reserved for the battery component factory project of the Swedish firm Northvolt. This project will probably be carried out. This is not a large polluting industrial project, like a cement plant or a refinery, but a battery component factory that will allow Quebec to occupy its place in the green economy. /p>

This is the reason why almost no one, not even environmentalists, is opposed to the project.

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Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau and François Legault, in particular, during the announcement by Northvolt of its decision to set up its factory in Montérégie, in Saint-Basile-le-Grand and in McMasterville.

However, the information revealed day after day by my colleagues Thomas Gerbet, from Radio-Canada, and Alexandre Shields, from Devoir,in particular, only further reinforce this impression that the operation is being carried out on the sly. Almost every morning, we learn a little more about what we hadn't been told.

On the fact that Quebec, for example, changed the regulations to exempt the project from an examination by the BAPE, on the quality of the wetlands which will be destroyed, on the thousands of trees which will be cut down, on the very fragile nature of the species affected by the destruction of ecosystems, on water withdrawals and aquatic discharges, on the desire to use agricultural land to compensate for the loss of wetlands, on authorizations granted in record time. In short, information that gives the impression that the government is turning a blind eye to its own rules in order to speed up the process.

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The Northvolt Six complex will be built on the border of the municipalities of Saint-Basile-le-Grand and McMasterville.

All this without mentioning the effects that such a project (3000 employees) will have on local communities: on land use planning, on local public services (aqueduct, sewers, electricity, etc.), on the intensity of transport heavy and light, on the possible increase in rents and land values ​​in the region, etc. Questions for which citizens do not have all the answers, without having access to a structure like the BAPE hearings.

Distrust reigns and sometimes it doesn't take much for the authorities to lose control of the situation.

Hence this question: why does the government not take the time necessary to do things well, at the risk of losing the popular support necessary to achieve this project?

At the end of last year, we saw several ministers from the Legault government roaming the corridors of the National Assembly with the same book under arm: How Big Things Get Done, Danish researcher Bent Flyvbjerg and Canadian journalist Dan Gardner. This work was offered to them by the Prime Minister's chief of staff and proposes the following thesis: if major projects too often die during implementation, it is because they are poorly put together from the start and because&#x27 ;they are launched based on an unfinished structure.

The authors conclude that those responsible for major projects must be patient and, above all, take more time to plan well in advance. This allows rapid execution of the project afterwards.

This lesson does not seem to have been learned in the Northvolt factory file. The federal and Quebec elected officials who are leading this project – and who have invested more than seven billion dollars in public funds – are eager to see it get off the ground.

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Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon believes that the federal estimate that the production incentives offered to Northvolt will be profitable within nine years “is the right one”.

François Legault does not understand why environmentalists are throwing up their hands: he is convinced that they should applaud this extraordinary project for the environment. Mr. Fitzgibbon, for his part, deplores a surge of hostility towards Northvolt.

As I wrote above, no one wants this project to die. It is the government’s eagerness to see the factory built that raises eyebrows. The CEO of Northvolt for North America, Paolo Cerruti, even confided in an interview to my colleague Patrice Roy on Thursday: There is a regulatory framework in which we fit. This regulatory framework was created by the government of Quebec, aware of this race against time.

And there is the fact, above all, of allowing Northvolt to avoid a BAPE examination thanks to a last-minute regulatory modification, tailor-made for this project. Indeed, a year ago, the Legault government modified, without fanfare, the threshold which forces an examination of the BAPE for the manufacture of cathodes. The new regulation increased this threshold from 50,000 to 60,000 tonnes. However, the future factory will produce 56,000.

< p class="StyledImageCaptionLegend-sc-57496c44-2 sbxsP">Patrice Roy speaks with Northvolt CEO for North America, Paolo Cerruti.

However, since the BAPE exists to examine large projects, it seems surprising that Northvolt is exempt from a formal evaluation process, especially since the BAPE, which allows citizens to express their points of view and asking questions of project managers, is an effective barometer for measuring the degree of social acceptability of projects. So, in the case of such a big project in such a small community, Quebec would be wrong to deprive itself of it.

Oh! this institution is far from perfect. The BAPE report on the Quebec tramway published in 2020, for example, for which the commissioners gave a rather negative opinion, was widely criticized. He recommended that the authorities study other modes of transport on the pretext that the tramway alone would not meet all needs. Former Quebec mayor Régis Labeaume described this report as truncated, biased and full of inconsistencies.

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The BAPE report on the Quebec tramway published in 2020, for example, for which the commissioners have gave a rather negative opinion, was very criticized.

The BAPE report on the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) project in the Montreal region, in which the commissioners criticized the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec for not providing enough information, was also rather poorly received. in the Quebec metropolis. However, it is clear that history will have somewhat proven the BAPE right: many strings were poorly tied.

However, among the approximately 400 reports that the BAPE has produced over the decades, many have served to improve the situation and not necessarily to kill the projects.

Certain BAPE hearings have marked the history of Quebec: the famous hearings on water in 2000 led to the implementation of a major policy on water management, improved since then; the BAPE on the pork industry in 2003 profoundly transformed the practices of this formerly very polluting industry, which greatly improved the image of Quebec pork elsewhere in the world; the BAPE examination of the shale gas sector in 2011 revealed the very outdated nature of the laws which governed this sector of activity.

The quality of information obtained through hearings is much greater than in the absence of such a process, for several reasons.

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The BAPE on the pork industry in 2003 transformed into in depth the practices of this formerly very polluting industry.

First of all, the company concerned is required to submit an impact study of its project, which requires it to provide a minimum of data about the effects of its activities on the environment and on the local population. Then, as independent researchers are invited to offer their expertise, the sources of information are diversified. Finally, citizens can interview government and company experts in person and transparently express their grievances or support for the project.

These Exchanges enrich the content of possible solutions or highlight the biggest flaws in a project. Clearly, the exercise makes it possible to improve a project, for the benefit of all stakeholders.

However, beyond all these considerations, the greatest usefulness of the BAPE is certainly this: it sometimes acts as a form of relief for citizens who have concerns.

Even if the solutions proposed are not always optimal, the simple fact, for citizens, of being able to question those responsible and force them to do better can greatly contribute to increasing the degree of social acceptability of 'a project.

Certainly, holding BAPE hearings eats up time. But we can think that this delay will improve the social acceptability of the project, essential to its realization.

But Quebec shows no sign of opening. There are currently several battery sector projects in development in Quebec, which has prompted environmental groups to demand that the Legault government carry out a strategic environmental assessment of the entire sector, as permitted by law.

My colleague Thomas Gerbet asked for a reaction on this subject from the office of the Minister of the Environment, Benoit Charette, and the answer could not be clearer: Our government does not intend to request a general strategic environmental assessment of the battery sector.

History has however shown that governments which wanted going too fast have sometimes bitten their fingers.

  • Étienne Leblanc (View profile)Étienne LeblancFollow

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