Coalition Avenir Québec pitches more hydro dams to Quebec voters

If re-elected premier Oct. 3, Legault said he would ask Hydro-Québec to start the necessary studies as soon as possible, noting that such megaprojects can take up to 15 years to complete.

CAQ Leader François Legault says province needs more hydro output

A man stands at a podium in front of a screen touting electricity as clean power.
CAQ Leader François Legault told a group of business leaders Tuesday in Bécancour, Que., that, if re-elected, he would ask Hydro-Québec to begin planning new dam projects. (Mathieu Potvin/Radio-Canada)

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault is promising to ask the province's hydro utility to consider building new hydroelectric dams, but he is not saying where or how he would realize the complicated, expensive megaprojects.

There is no doubt the province needs to increase its production of electricity in the coming decades, Legault told business leaders Tuesday in Bécancour, Que., located between Montreal and Quebec City.

On Day 10 of Quebec's election campaign, the CAQ leader said that as more businesses turn to electricity, demand is expected to surge by an additional 100 terawatt-hours — half the entire annual output of Crown corporation Hydro-Québec.

"That means we'll have to build half a Hydro-Québec in the next few years," he said. "It's not a small mandate."

If re-elected premier Oct. 3, Legault said he would ask the utility to start the necessary studies as soon as possible, noting that such projects can take up to 15 years to complete.

Legault's comments drew a strong reaction from Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who challenged the CAQ leader to say "which rivers he wants to harness to make his dams."

A black and white photo of four men in suits shaking hands.
Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, left, shakes hands with Inuit and Cree representatives in Montreal in 1974, after Quebec signed a hydro agreement with the Cree in James Bay. Experts say new developments will be harder to push through. (The Canadian Press)

Changing political landscape complicates new projects

Quebec's massive hydro dams have long provided the province's residents with cheap electricity and the country's lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

But experts have said such megaprojects are much harder to build compared with decades ago due to higher costs, stricter environmental standards and pushback from Indigenous communities whose lands would be affected.

Currently, Hydro-Québec is completing the Romaine-4 dam project, which is two years behind schedule and has a price tag pegged late last year at $7.3 billion.

Hydro-Québec told The Canadian Press in December that the utility didn't have other dam projects on the horizon, citing the lengthy construction period and the high cost for dams, as well as the increasing feasibility of other forms of renewables, such as wind power.

Louis Beaumier, executive director of the Institut de l'énergie Trottier at Polytechnique Montréal, is skeptical about Legault's plan.

"It sounds a little like he's improvising," he said in a phone interview.

The most promising rivers in the province have already been dammed, meaning any other project would be farther away and more expensive, Beaumier said.

Social acceptability also comes into play, he added, noting that dams in the past were built without consulting the Indigenous communities whose lands were flooded. Dams are also not without environmental consequences, which include altering river ecology, cutting down trees to build transmission lines and flooding vast swaths of land. 

A big truck in a construction zone.
Construction will soon wrap up on Quebec's latest hydro development on the Romaine River. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

When questioned by reporters on Tuesday, Legault declined to say how many dams he would build or where, adding that it would be up to Hydro-Québec to determine the best way to meet the province's electricity needs. Any new project would be realized in partnership with Indigenous communities, he said.

Ghislain Picard, the chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, said he welcomes Legault's intention to reach agreements with Indigenous communities on future dam projects, adding that Tuesday's announcement "opened the door" for Indigenous issues to be discussed during the election campaign.

"I'm quite certain that wasn't his intention," said Picard.

According to Picard, Legault's party has spent much of the last four years avoiding dealing with Indigenous land claims and other issues.

"There's a real need for genuine relationships, political relationships between First Nations and the government of Quebec, and I still think we're very much short of that."

Legault is counting on increasing electrification as part of his environmental plan, which includes achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. He said if he's re-elected, he would also ask the utility to start building new wind farms to meet the province's short-term needs. He also promised to vastly increase the number of electric vehicle charging stations.

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said Tuesday that her party isn't planning to build new hydro dams, adding that if elected it would choose instead to focus on wind, solar and green hydrogen projects.

Six people stand near a podium in front of brewing vats.
Quebec Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade, seen here at a news conference in a Drummondville microbrewery Tuesday, says her party would focus on cleaner energy. (Jean-François Dumas/Radio-Canada)

Beaumier is also skeptical about green hydrogen, saying it is unlikely to be profitable in the near future. Wind power is a more promising alternative, he said.

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Nadeau-Dubois promised new taxes on the wealthiest five per cent of citizens, including a tax on large inheritances and another on "large fortunes." He told reporters in Gatineau, Que., that the new taxes would allow a Québec Solidaire government to invest more in health, education and the fight against climate change.

Anglade, who campaigned Tuesday in ridings held by the Coalition Avenir Québec, promised tax breaks and other measures to support small and medium businesses.

And as she targeted ridings held by her rival, Conservative Leader Éric Duhaime continued his appeal to English speakers in Montreal, who have traditionally voted Liberal.

Duhaime promised to repeal recently passed legislation that strengthens the province's French-language laws. He said a Conservative government would instead favour an approach that incentivizes learning the language. He accused the Legault government of treating English speakers like a "punching bag" to appeal to the francophone nationalist vote.

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, meanwhile, promised $11 billion for Quebec's regions to make up for what he called their "chronic underfunding." He also promised a new minister would be named to promote the parts of the province outside the big cities.

With files from CBC's Shawn Lyons