The environmental footprint of hydroelectric projects is not trivial. Many thousands of acres of pristine forest and wetland are often obliterated, or in the case of wetlands, are made much much wetter. It is also true that dams irreversibly wipe out natural fish habitats. Dams do create new reservoirs with new ecosystems, but the originals are gone forever, as are the wildlife corridors in flooded river valleys.
In the early days of North American industrial development, these dams were considered to be great ideas to foster economic development. Native populations in the impacted regions also enjoyed a seat at the table – but only once, at the beginning of the process, when government officials dropped by to tell them to get the hell out. Those probably weren’t the exact words, but it surely was pointed out that their homes and hunting grounds would soon be under a hundred feet of water. Hey, they didn’t tell them they had to leave, just a suggestion. (In Quebec in the 1970s, the government paid the Cree and other first nations $150 million in settlement for past wrongs; that amount in 1975 is an indication of the displacement the new dams caused).
Times change however, and there is (rightly) more to the approvals process. Some might argue it’s gone too far; as we are acutely aware in the oil patch it is unwise to even overturn a rock without ensuring that proper aboriginal consultation has been undertaken. In many ways it seems like overkill, and the processes most certainly extend the timeline of projects (to infinity, sometimes) but on the other hand these unilateral developments of 50-100 years ago are not easily forgotten and the native bands are understandably more skittish this time around. So a given level of consultation is not a bad thing.
But strange things are happening in the energy world. Hydroelectric projects fall under the category of renewable energy and now qualify as “green”. There is a considerable global push to develop them and many countries seem to be tackling hydroelectric development with the same oaf-like enthusiasm that North America did a hundred years ago – that is, destroying vast tracts of habitat forever by creating hydroelectric dams. The native populations, like North American ones of the last century, are often being swept aside just as indiscriminately.
Hydroelectric power is definitely cleaner than burning things, once it’s built, but what is interesting is the change in attitudes towards the demolition of landscapes. Hydroelectric power was once pilloried for doing that, but now it’s ok, because it’s “renewable” energy. Meanwhile, fossil fuel projects can hardly get off the ground because of the environmental impact, despite the fact that something like Keystone XL has only a fraction of the impact as a new dam, in terms of aerial disturbance.
Consider these two spatial statistics. The first two phases of the James Bay project in Quebec created new reservoirs that covered 12,900 square kilometres (about 5,000 square miles). That is the area covered by reservoirs, not the area impacted (nor the 4,800 km network of transmission lines that were required to be built). Hundreds of dikes and dams were created, some as high as 56 stories.
Now compare this to the baddest of bad boys, Alberta’s oil sands. Total disturbed lands, including tailings ponds, in the surface mineable area is about 1,100 square kilometres. There are other oil sands operations that disturb the landscape with well pads, etc, but for comparison purposes let’s call that a wash with the infrastructure required for the James Bay project (although 4,800 km of transmission lines equals a lot of pipeline right of ways…). Both are also massive; the oil sands region produces more oil than Canada consumes every day, however Quebec’s entire hydroelectric output is only about 30% of Canadian generating capacity.
Which one is “clean” energy again? The oil sands are being developed under extreme scrutiny, and reclamation plans are part of the package. There will never be reclamation of the damage caused by hydroelectric projects. Yes, a man-made lake is different than a mine site, but if the mine site is reclaimed properly, how is the lake superior (no pun intended)? Yes, hydroelectric power lasts indefinitely, but the cost to the environment was permanent. That should count for something.
Opponents of the oil sands would argue that dams produce clean power, and the oil sands produces “dirty oil.” Here’s some news: all oil is dirty. All 95 million barrels per day that we use globally. The oil from the oil sands is slightly less efficient to produce, consuming more energy than other oil fields to extract the oil, but not massively so. The carbon bomb nonsense is not worth dissecting again; not even the oil sands’ biggest booster would envision that more than 10 percent of the oil sands reserves could ever be produced.
This isn’t meant to imply direct comparability between the oil sands and hydroelectric dams. The point is that being an “environmentalist” means a lot of different things. David Suzuki thinks hydroelectric dams are a good thing, though adds the qualifier that dams should be “low impact.” But that comment is typically hypocritical, noting that small hydroelectric facilities are no worse at damaging the environment than “natural flooding, drought and erosion rates.”
Most petroleum projects are far less damaging to habitat than the destruction done by beavers, but no one wants to admit that. A fundamental truth about oil sands mining also is that the process is cleaning the environment, removing remnants of the world’s biggest oil spill from the soil and then replacing and replanting the surface vegetation. But good luck finding anyone that will go on record and admit that is true.
As always, this is not an attack on renewable energy or hydroelectricity. Utilizing the power of flowing water is a brilliant use of natural energy sources that are non-polluting, just as undersea turbines will be some day.
The point is that energy generation has a cost, and an environmental footprint. That is inescapable. We currently need all hands on deck to meet our energy requirements, and these requirements grow every year. That includes hydroelectric power, though we are wise to develop it in a way that minimizes collateral damage. The exact same truth holds for fossil fuels; we should develop them as needed but we need to pay attention to what we’re doing.
The future is renewable energy, but it is still a distant future, and in the meantime there is no realistic alternative to fossil fuels. It is productive to lay the groundwork for future energy projects, but not to try to balance the equation at present by killing off the world’s current lifeline. It’s not a game, and sometimes it takes something like a brutal winter to remind us of that. In the meantime, we need collaboration and creativity to meet the world’s energy needs, and it would help if the David Suzukis of the world were more interested in solutions than…whatever it is that they do.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here