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Dispute may unveil Hydro dam costs

Squabble over purpose of Bipole III line

New Manitoba Hydro building in downtown Winnipeg.

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New Manitoba Hydro building in downtown Winnipeg. (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

 David Chartrand challenges Hydro's position that Bipole III is intended to increase the reliability of domestic power supply.

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David Chartrand challenges Hydro's position that Bipole III is intended to increase the reliability of domestic power supply. (SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES)

It's a battle of duelling paperwork now, but it threatens to derail an upcoming hearing into whether Manitoba Hydro -- and by extension the Selinger government -- is telling Manitobans the full potential cost of building two new northern mega-dams.

It involves an ongoing argument between the Crown energy utility and the Manitoba Metis Federation over the construction of the $3.28-billion Bipole III transmission line, and whether it's intended to improve the domestic reliability of bringing electricity south to Winnipeg or to sell more power to the Americans.

In new documents filed at the Public Utilities Board -- a special panel starts a two-month hearing next week on the two dam projects -- the MMF argues the PUB must consider Bipole III as integral to the success of the proposed Keeyask and Conawapa generating stations and the export of electricity to the northern United States.

"They're trying to disguise Bipole III under reliability when the facts are completely opposite," MMF president David Chartrand said Monday of Hydro's position. "Without Bipole III, the dams are out the door. They're completely of no value."

The MMF has said Bipole III will impact land Métis in northern and southern Manitoba use for hunting and cultural purposes.

The MMF was granted intervener status in the hearing, called a Needs For and Alternatives to Review, and hired consultant Whitfield Russell Associates of Virginia in their case. Whitfield Russell Associates say to not include Bipole III essentially neutralizes the purpose of the hearing. They urge that the line be cancelled or at least deferred.

"Manitoba Hydro's decision to attribute the need for, and the cost of, Bipole III primarily to system reliability has had the effect -- advantageous in Manitoba Hydro's eyes -- of laying the groundwork for -- and diverting attention from -- its long-standing plans to build Keeyask and Conawapa," it says in its report posted on the PUB website.

Whitfield Russell Associates argues what other critics of Hydro's dam-building plan have said -- it would be cheaper for the Crown corporation to build natural gas-fired generating stations in southern Manitoba than two massive dams in the north.

"Indeed, by planning to build natural gas plants closer to Winnipeg, Manitoba Hydro would avoid any 'need' to build Bipole III, which is driven by its high-risk plan to build excess hydro capacity and move even more hydro power to the U.S. market in the hope of making profitable sales."

Hydro vehemently disagrees.

It says Bipole III has already been dealt with by the Clean Environment Commission (CEC) and has been granted an environmental licence. It also says the government's terms of reference specifically exclude Bipole III and the sole focus of the hearing should be on the Keeyask and Conawapa generating stations and related transmission facilities, which includes a new line to run from Winnipeg to Minnesota.

In short, it says the MMF is on a mission to rewrite the rules and reverse approval for Bipole III.

"No hearing before the Public Utilities Board... should be exploited as a forum to advance positions that have no relevance to the work of the board," Hydro lawyer Douglas Beford said in a Feb. 14 letter to the PUB.

Beford goes further to ask the PUB to yank intervener funding from the MMF.

"I submit on behalf of my client that there should be some additional sanction. No one should be paid for doing what was clearly out of scope for what are patently partisan objectives," he said.

The PUB is to decide on the matter this week.

Chartrand said the CEC never considered Bipole III on an economic level, only environmental. The MMF had appealed the environmental licence for the line.

"Clearly, they're threatening to silence us so that we keep quiet or they're going to try to figure out how to make sure the PUB doesn't give us any money to pay for the work the consultant has done," Chartrand said. "It's really keeping it -- how do you say the words without being too disrespectful to government -- where there's a sleight of hand here.

"If they're going to restrict us, are Manitobans actually getting a fair package of information from the Crown corporation that they own?"

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

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