Montreal

Quebec premier 'confident' $10B Hydro-Québec project will go through despite referendum loss

Quebec Premier François Legault says he is looking at different paths and scenarios to continue the construction of a transmission line through the state of Maine despite residents voting against the project in a referendum yesterday.

Hydro-Québec is considering a legal challenge

Quebec premier François Legault said Wednesday that he knew the vote on the Maine power line project would be 'tight,' but there's still hope for it. (Sylvain Roy-Roussel/Radio-Canada)

While voters in Maine said no to a multibillion-dollar power line project through the state that would see Quebec exporting electricity to Massachusetts for 20 years, Premier François Legault says he is "confident" the project will still come to fruition.

In a Tuesday referendum, the majority of Maine voted against the Hydro-Québec project. In total, just over a third of eligible voters cast a ballot.

Legault commented Wednesday on the stinging setback for the Crown corporation and his government's plan to make Quebec the "battery of North America."

"We knew that the referendum would be tight. We indeed have a plan B," he said during a press briefing at the United Nations (UN) Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow, Scotland. He noted that the governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, is determined that the deal go through.

Hydro-Québec is now considering its legal options. The line is already being built and worth billions of dollars to the Quebec public utility and to its American partners.

Sophie Brochu, CEO of Hydro-Québec, says regardless of citizens' opposition, the project was approved through legitimate processes, and it's already underway. 

"The project has its permits. It exists. It's under construction. So we can't say the project can't exist," she told Radio-Canada's Tout un matin.

"We can write all the bills we want, but that won't change reality."

In a short statement, Hydro-Québec said it will "take the necessary actions to have its rights recognized and ensure the continued construction of the project, which will make a significant contribution to the fight against climate change."

In a separate interview with CBC News, Lynn St-Laurent, a spokesperson for the utility, she says the Crown corporation will be considering a legal challenge. 

Respect democratic process: Québec Solidaire

Quebec Energy Minister Jonatan Julien told reporters Wednesday he was disappointed with the results of the referendum, but he says the project is in the right legal place to move forward.

"We had obtained from January all the authorizations, so we are looking at all the options to go ahead with this project," he said.

"We are not demobilizing resources. We are in the field and we are working."

On Tuesday morning, the Liberal Party attacked Legault's leadership. 

"What happened yesterday, of course, was a failure. It is a failure for all Quebecers, then it is also a failure, very clearly, for François Legault," said Pierre Arcand, former minister of energy and the Official Opposition Critic for Energy and Natural Resources. 

WATCH | Drone footage of the Maine hydro project:

Drone of Maine hydro project

3 months ago
Duration 0:50
Cutting of the forest path is well underway, as seen from this drone footage shot in June at Johnson Mountain, Maine, and supplied by project opponents with the Courtesy of Yes on 1 campaign. 0:50

For its part, Québec Solidaire said it believes that the province must respect the result of the referendum, even if the outcome does not suit Quebec. 

"This is not the decision we wanted. I think everyone is disappointed today. At the same time, we must respect the democratic process," said leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.

Leader of the Parti Québécois, Joël Arsenault, does not blame the Legault government for the referendum loss.

However, Arsenault says Legault must understand that his "green battery" project does not absolve him of finding solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Quebec. 

'I am confident that it will be done'

Meanwhile, Legault says he is looking at different scenarios with Hydro-Québec and with Massachusetts.

"There are different paths we can take to get to Massachusetts and there are also different means," he said, explaining that he could not provide more details. 

"I am confident that it will be done."

The project would cut a new path from the Quebec border through 85 km of Maine's forest, before widening an existing hydro route for another 148 km and connecting to the grid. (Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Known as the New England Clean Energy Corridor, the 233-kilometre project is projected to generate $10 billion US for Hydro-Québec over 20 years.

Hydro-Québec and its American partner, Central Maine Power, have all of the necessary permits in place and construction started in January 2020, but citizens and non-government groups opposed to the project gathered the 60,000 signatures needed to force a referendum in Maine. 

Brochu, Hydro-Québec's CEO, says fossil fuel companies incited citizens to collect signatures and submit a bill against the project. 

"Voters in Maine exercised their rights … they were within all their rights to do what they did. But now when you understand the backstory, you understand the motivations behind it." 

The Maine Public Utilities Commission had said this project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 3.6 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of taking 700,000 cars off the road. 

But some people in Maine have protested against the fact that the project requires cutting down 1,000 trees, even though most of those trees have already been cleared. Others were opposed to a foreign company — Hydro-Québec — providing power to Americans.

Pierre-Olivier Pineau, a professor at business school HEC Montréal who specializes in energy policy, says the nixing of the project is bad news not only for Quebec, but for the entirety of New England. 

"We'll need more interconnections if we want to decarbonize our economy, and [the outcome of the referendum] unfortunately is a sign that citizens aren't ready."

This is the second time Hydro-Québec's plans to export power to the U.S. have hit a roadblock. In 2019, Hydro-Québec abandoned a plan to export power through New Hampshire because of public opposition.

With files from Kate McKenna, Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press, Holly Cabrera

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