“God Curse Thee Megadam”: Greg Hewlett on Muskrat Falls

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Six chance descriptions of the Muskrat Falls project:

A project touted for its contribution to a sustainable energy future, and pursued doggedly for its renewable energy credentials by provincial and federal governments failing to meet emission targets, that not only produces huge amounts of CO2 and methane, but also becomes the foremost source of a debt that effectively binds provincial economic survival—at least in the near-term—to oil and gas production.

A project presented as the cornerstone of the province’s long-term economic and energy security becomes a palpable threat to both.

A project whose massive capacity is justified solely on the merits of future export revenues becomes one with no discernible viable markets.

A project proposed as a major public asset, becomes the medium through which an essential service and its customers are financialized into a source of revenue on the global bond market, in an upward transfer of wealth that is as subtle as it is significant.

In response to Dr. Bernander’s North Spur reports, Nalcor commissions a review of the original SNC-Lavalin research that deliberately neglects to engage with Bernander’s fundamental criticism: that the data and methods employed in this original research are wholly inadequate for addressing the issues identified by his analysis in the first place.

None of this is news to anyone, I know. What’s been publicly stated about the Lower Churchill Project by government and Nalcor has turned out in a baffling number of cases diametrically opposed to what in reality unfolds.

In bringing together these six descriptions, the idea was to establish the kind of irrational pattern that seems to plague the project at every step. But I realized that calling it irrational fails to capture what in retrospect turns out to look downright predictive: that is, each major claim giving rise in time to its antithesis.

Now I won’t be swinging back the other way to suggest that, far from being irrational, these outcomes are the result of some grand conspiracy: nobody could possibly set out for such dismal goals. I give these examples instead to suggest the chasm between rhetoric and reality that has been a defining mark of Muskrat Falls.

I’d like to take a moment to zoom out, to an ancient theme that I keep coming back to in my more reflective moments of thinking, reading and writing about Muskrat Falls. That theme is man versus nature.

Forgive the gendered usage of man here: I use it not to neglect other genders but to implicate my own, as it’s largely men responsible for deeply ingraining and perpetuating a paradigm of thought and a way of being in the world that by the twenty first century has most emphatically caught up with us. Our drive to conquer nature turns out to serve us about as well as it would a newborn baby out to conquer its mother.

If the bright side of industrial capitalism has been to spread material wealth over the world—albeit selectively—its dark side has been to unleash the power of our knowledge and rational minds in such a way that, as we now know, is taking us headlong into worldwide climate breakdown. The thing about our rational minds is that they’re nearly always in the service of what we already want or don’t want to believe, loath to admit it though we are; self-interest for example is eminently rational—corporations routinely rationalize virtually anything in the name of profit—but rational self-interest writ large as a species-guiding ethos eventually results in the breaking of humanity’s life-enabling pact with nature: you take care of me, I’ll take care of you.

The megadam is a classic symbol of man against nature. The radical alteration of a landscape it requires can of course be rationalized functionally, but for the ecosystem in question, and for those who live in and through that ecosystem, that radical alteration could only be experienced as deformation and defilement. In the megadam is reflected a worldview, that, like the unfettered capitalism we know today, refuses to place value in what it so glibly writes off as externalities. These externalities can more accurately be called social and environmental well-being; or even more to the point, the health of human beings and the earth.

And so what we have is a remarkable feat of engineering that will produce renewable energy for decades to come. Ok, and the externalities? Quoting limnologist David Schindler, citing 40 years of research: “Canadian dams have strangled river systems, flooded forests, blocked fish movement, increased methylmercury pollution, unsettled entire communities and repeatedly violated treaty rights.” Of course all these would stand even if the economics made sense.

But how seriously were they taken, any of these well-documented impacts, in the lead-up to Muskrat Falls? Before the Labrador Land Protectors and others in the region began to stand up for the future of their water and food, and by extension, their culture and ancestry, to what degree were these factors weighed and considered? How about since then?

The answer speaks volumes to our priorities, and those priorities in turn are informed by society’s values.

It has been, I think, very sad to witness the response not only of government but the province as a whole, to the multiple years of indigenous-led resistance to this project. Our variety of underwhelming responses—from long silences to the efforts to placate to civil and criminal charges—have all had something in common: a kind of implicit, possibly subconscious, widespread resistance to the idea that our government could really be engaged in an enterprise that does measurable harm to the basic resources of life.

It’s a theory that could help explain why many were so reluctant to call the Labrador Land Protectors by their own self-designation, insisting on protester over protector. To call them protectors is acknowledging something needs protecting, at which point how on earth do you justify laying criminal charges? You can rationalize it, but you can’t justify it. There’s a reason injunctions can be filed to keep people off a worksite, but not to keep mercury from accumulating in a food chain.

I don’t think it far-fetched to suggest that a project of this kind, and those undertaking it, should be judged in part by what it considers acceptable collateral damage. The official line seems to be that mercury levels probably won’t reach dangerous levels for all that long, and if they do they’ll be monitored. But that we insist on taking the risk is again indicative of our priorities and the values that underpin them. So too with the standing of that very word, risk, the fetish of finance, so gravely applied to money matters while holding so little sway in those of human health.

This is borne out again so acutely in the case of the North Spur. Nalcor’s Geotechnical Peer Review Panel, by its own admission, “has not performed any calculation to verify the accuracy, completeness or validity of the results obtained by SLI.” Therefore, as a response to Dr. Bernander’s findings, it falls far short of the burden of proof. And what a burden it is. There’s no doubt the geotechnical analysis in question is far above the head of any non-engineer, and maybe we’re made to feel helpless by the enormity of what’s being implied. Another part of us probably just refuses to believe that the supposedly responsible adults in charge could let this happen.

But the history we already know of the Lower Churchill Project begs we keep this part of ourselves in check. In 2010, not many of even the skeptics among of us would’ve thought it could all turn out quite so badly as it has. Tangible, scientifically-informed warnings are on the record, and their conclusions insist that we believe the worst case scenario is very possible. Only due diligence on the part of Nalcor can determine this. All we know for sure is that not one more time can we afford to take their word for it.

As historian Jim Bannister took pains to point out at the symposium in Happy Valley Goose Bay, we do well to remember the specific climate of the times when this project was conceived and sanctioned—that is in his words the high-water mark of Newfoundland nationalism, marked by a fever pitch that had the force behind it not only of a charismatic egomaniac chasing a legacy project, but also of potent historical wounds and resentments: most especially in this case the collective humiliation of the infamous Upper Churchill deal. Maybe the seemingly tidy resolution of redeeming one mega-dam with another played a part in luring us to Muskrat Falls, but so too did the show of might involved in damming the brute force of the Grand River. It was a perfect fit for the bravado of a people taking what’s theirs. Imagine, conquering nature and Quebec in one go.

Eight years after giving full heed to the impulsiveness of that time, whose purest expression was the sanctioning process that ran roughshod over every democratic mechanism it encountered, we face a future in which it’s very possible that our pressing need for debt relief could result in the loss of at least part of the ownership of the Lower Churchill Project to private interests, the federal government or, god forbid, Hydro Quebec. We see to our disbelief the ghost of the same sick joke flowing downstream from the Upper Churchill to haunt the Lower: the possibility of losing part of the benefit of our own resources, again.

Today, when the big picture is so murky for so many, and into that picture is injected the fear of doubling electricity costs, the vague dread that’s been mounting for years of what this Project will mean to people’s daily lives suddenly takes hideous form, and so too do people’s responses to it: namely fear and resentment, with panic and anger never far behind.

Indeed, the public consciousness of the project has been obscured from many sides. The flows of information pass through many partial filters. The challenge of interpreting and contextualizing complex processes unfolding over many years, a challenge heightened by defunded and reduced investigative capacity in a journalism held captive by click-based values, and heightened again by the reptilian free-for-all of Facebook and Twitter; if this all doesn’t promote superficial understanding, we then have to contend with politicians doing their utmost to distort and confuse public perception still further by subjecting every development to partisan hackery, embittering for the public the void left in the wake of honest and accurate communication. The screamingly obvious self-interest at work in the political arena reflects a system that seems to thwart the few good intentions that do exist within its toxic frame.

But I think that what people want and need right now, even if we wouldn’t dare be so naive as to hope for it, is simply to be respected enough by our elected officials to be levelled with as adults about the situation we’re in. That government got us in this mess on our dime in the first place is bad enough, but their continuing very poorly to try to manipulate the discourse for electoral and personal gain at this late stage, as serious and compounding crises loom, when people are so anxious to know what the near-future will hold and how best they can prepare for it: this is what’s becoming more than we should be willing to bear.

We can take some degree of solace and vindication from the Commission of Inquiry now underway, especially with standing granted to the Labrador Land Protectors, Grand River-keeper, and the Muskrat Falls Concerned Citizens Coalition, among others. A forum to scrutinize the many mistakes and deceptions that helped land us in our present state is certainly called for—but refusing to make public any of these deceptions on the pretence of “commercial sensitivity” raises the question that bears repeating: why bother in the first place if some of the most powerful actors, who have potentially wrought some of the most powerful consequences, are allowed to simply excuse themselves from blame? What version of justice allows big business to be the single element in this mess left unscathed? Once more I have to say it, the priorities are loud and clear.

But even so: let us not miss the opportunity for the Inquiry’s findings to propel us into a strong transition from probing the past into the even more critical task of figuring out how to face the future.

Greg Hewlett is a writer and ESL instructor currently living in Toronto. Upon moving there in late 2017, he found that with distance from Newfoundland and Labrador came the heightened urge to dig deeper into the project that so threatened the home he’d just left. After publishing a 6-part series in the Overcast, Greg delivered this talk (adapted for publishing) at the Muskrat Falls Symposium at MUN September 29.