Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: hydroelectric (page 1 of 4)

What WAS said?

I was in Moncton for a meeting with DUC on Friday when the What Was Said report arrived in my email inbox. This report is a compilation of the stakeholder process that NB Power has so far undertaken around the future of the prematurely aging Mactaquac hydroelectric dam. They’re careful not to call it a social science report or stakeholder analysis, which is appropriate, being the combined work of Corporate Research Associates (CRA) polling and National PR firm coding. Report authors suggest that New Brunswickers voiced almost unanimous concern about the environment (particularly fish passage), taxpayer burden, local and renewable energy sources, local suppliers, and transparent process. There was a nice geographic comparison of priorities: based on self-declared postal codes those in the region were predictably more concerned with community impacts than cost; vice versa for non-residents.

The cover of our new report based on a 2014 survey of NB residents on Mactaquac and general energy issues.

The cover of our new report based on a 2014 survey of NB residents on Mactaquac and general energy issues.

They could make much more meaning from what was collected. CRA did two surveys of 400 New Brunswick residents in 2015 and 2016, before and after the public engagement, but the results are aggregated (e.g. 59% heard of the Mactaquac issue) rather than compared across years to demonstrate changing awareness. The awareness indicated here is also captured as yes/no, rather than by levels of awareness as we did in 2014, when only 7% of our 500 survey respondents considered they knew quite a bit or a lot about the Mactaquac decision. Our new report, Mactaquac and Beyond (2016), delves into the drivers of various opinions on Mactaquac (among other things), revealing an imbalanced tug-of-war between economic benefits (rebuild with power – the dominant opinion) and environmental impacts (remove – minority view), with rebuild without power a compromise option driven by landscape and cost concerns. For female respondents the issue was a local one, particularly influenced by self-judged knowledge of the Mactaquac issue, while for men preferences rode on larger principles such as conservatism or position on hydroelectricity. Risk was a driver for the ill-informed, which suggests that misinformation about the possibility of failure may be influencing results. This kind of impartial social science is important, but also usefully associates perceived impacts and preferences with options, which is something that seems to have been intentionally avoided in the NB Power process as reported.

Thematic coding is a process of generalization and erasure, and must be undertaken very carefully and by trusted parties. The data collection itself can introduce many biases as well. It was interesting to see the different themes emerging depending on the type of data collection/intervention: Mactaquaction was clearly bombed with ‘keep the dam’ comments (note there was no way to avoid multiple entries), though environment topped other modes. Yet, what is in that huge ‘Other’ category, NBP? Later analyses of community and fish passage sessions include First Nations themes lumped with Infrastructure/Transportation and Other. Those are strange bedfellows. This is a green versus green debate: climate mitigation and an adapted headpond versus fish passage and hydrological integrity. What was included in ‘environment’ and how were these sources coded? This work suggests that fish passage only came up in the formal submissions, and transparency only in community sessions, but the appendices themselves belie this.

Our first Mactaquac paper is less-than-lovingly reproduced from page 149 to 159 of the largely unsearchable scanned appendices (not including my less formal commentaries and feedback). The appendices include formal submissions from groups such as WWF, NCC and the NB Salmon Council dated as far back as January 6, 2015, including one from energy project collaborator Tom Beckley (p. 173-178) about his multiple relationships with the dam landscape as landholder, taxpayer, Local Service District committee member and scholar. His piece is a nice microcosm of the complexity of the Mactaquac decision. None of these thoughtful submissions is given any response. Appendix E, the Public Correspondence Snapshot, goes back even further, to December 15, 2014, and is filled with rich stories and important questions (all anonymized). The parts we can see scanned sometimes include quick replies that suggest an answer to the proffered questions will be forthcoming (see below): how powerful it would have been if these submissions AND answers were posted online as they arrived! As mentioned in our recent Mactaquac paper, this could help bring the conversation from “me” to “we”.

A typical answer from NB Power on a public submission on Mactaquac submitted via the stakeholder engagement website (Appendix E p. 234).

A typical answer from NB Power on a public submission on Mactaquac submitted via the stakeholder engagement website (Appendix E p. 234).

One public submission from a high school student demonstrates misinformation about Mactaquac.

One public submission from a high school student demonstrates misinformation about Mactaquac  (Appendix E p. 246)=.

One submission in particular caught my eye, from a student at Nackawic High School who believes that the decision has already been made not to rebuild (p. 246), asking questions to complete a Journalism class assignment. My first thought was… since when does NHS offer Journalism? My elective options in 1989 were typing and child care. But secondly and clearly more salient here: the fact that such misinformation existed in April 2016 (and perhaps still exists), likely transmitted by a parent or teacher, was disturbing. Unlike other submissions, there is no evidence from the Appendices if the student ever got an reply – even poorly informed questions should be addressed, maybe especially poorly informed ones.

So what now? What will happen with What Was Said, and how will it feed into the decision? When will we hear about First Nations consultation, though at least one group has come out for removal? When will we get more details on options 3 or 4, comparable to that available for 1 and 2? What about real estate analyses? Impact on the river ecosystem? The NB Power and NSERC funding to the Canada Rivers Institute so far has generated lots of data, available through their ArcGIS online storymap, but a little preliminary synthesis would be great.

The saga of Site C

An April 2016 view of the Site C prep work, including a new access bridge, shoreline logging, etc, by the official Site C photographers.

An April 2016 view of the Site C prep work, including a new access bridge, shoreline logging, etc, by the official Site C photographers.

Ask Yan Chen what it is like to try and finalize a thesis on a topic that is changing as quickly as the debate over dams in Canada. Although it reached it’s one year construction anniversary this summer, and the landscape is barely recognizable anymore (see the construction photo gallery), voices of dissent over Site C are growing louder, not softer. Amnesty International have called for a halt to construction, for violations of First Nation rights, consistent with the news from New Brunswick. A long form piece on The Current this week examined First Nations issues around Site C quite deeply, in part inspired by Gord Downie’s pressure on Justin Trudeau Saturday night. So when Yan came into my office this week with a completed draft of her thesis about youth perceptions of Mactaquac and Site C, as revealed by Instagram use, it was clear there would likely be edits right up until the moment of submission pending the status of the projects.

First Nation weighs in on Mactaquac

Excerpt from CBC story, July 22, 2016, with two interesting pieces of news about Mactaquac

Excerpt from CBC story, July 22, 2016, with two interesting pieces of news about Mactaquac

An interesting piece of news was hidden in a CBC article today about a minor oil spill at the Mactaquac Generating Station in New Brunswick. It seems that the Wolastoq Grand Council – engaged over the past few years in a separate and thus far private stakeholder engagement process with NB Power – have officially come out in favour of dam removal. They have also vowed to oppose the Energy East pipeline based on risks to NB waterways. Curiously, it also seems that the options for the Mactaquac’s future have been limited now to the two cheapest options: extend life or remove. The two rebuilding options, with or without power, were not mentioned in today’s article. Perhaps a journalistic slip, but perhaps not.

Mactaquac commentary abounds

In the months leading up to the Mactaquac decision, the editorial pages of the Telegraph Journal is filling up with opinion pieces. Early in May, Keith Helmuth of the Woodstock Sustainable Energy Research group (who was an expert at our citizen jury) spoke out for dam removal, looking towards more efficient, greener energy options for the same investment and a boon for agricultural production. LarryJewett of Lakeway Houseboat Rental on the headpond (who rented us the houseboats we used for floating focus groups in 2013), and Friends of Mactaquac Lake, responded to support the rebuilding of the dam and generating station, for the local amenity it has become. Since then, Peter Cronin of the Atlantic Salmon Federation has responded to both in a two part commentary (1 and 2), supporting dam removal to foster a healthy river and restore fish stocks, among other things. While TJ has a firewall, as a subscriber the commentaries are just as interesting. A recent blog post on the NiCHE website by once-NB now-Maine environmental historian, Mark McLaughlin, uses our Before the Mactaquac Dam storymap to illustrate the need for academics to avoid focusing on stories of environmental decline: dams dramatically change landscapes and ecosystems, but are the exception among infrastructure in creating new amenity. I’m heading next week to the ISSRM meeting in Michigan, where I am co-convening a five-session stream on energy landscapes and transitions, which will examine just such trade-offs.

If I were NB Power …

The previous post received a constructive reply from George Porter, head of the Mactaquac project for NB Power. He gave responses to some of the explicit questions I asked (excerpted with permission):

Q             Who would own the land uncovered if the dam was removed?‎

A             NB Power owns the vast majority of this property and is taking no position at this time as to what it would do with the land after a dam removal.  Should the dam be removed, NB Power anticipates that an extensive multi-party planning exercise would be undertaken to establish an appropriate approach to land disposition, development, and use.

Q             How might post-dam remediation proceed and how long does it typically take to stabilize and green up?

A             This is explored in detail in the draft Comparative Environmental Review report posted online September 21, 2015. Chapter 9 is available for you here.

Q             What is left down there, in terms of infrastructure, cultural sites, or sediments (and their associated environmental legacies such as chemical residue or toxins from upriver industry and agriculture)?

A             Some of these subjects are being explored by the Canadian Rivers Institute. As their research is completed it is being made public on their website.

Q             How do the First Nations communities feel?

A             It would not be appropriate for NB Power to unilaterally assess and articulate how the first nations feel about the project.‎  Since 2013, NB Power has been engaging with First Nations in a separate and deliberate process to ensure their rights and interests are considered in advance of the recommended path forward.

He also invited further explanation of my critique, as well as suggestions for how to improve the process. I sat down on the weekend to reply. Here is the full text of my response.

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