Bipole project must be front and centre

Joseph Quesnel, policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, says the Bipole transmission line must be an election issue in Manitoba.

The upcoming provincial election campaign may be the best opportunity for Manitoba voters to demand answers on the contentious Bipole III project.

In 2007, the NDP government overruled Manitoba Hydro’s plan to build the high-voltage transmission line on the east side of the province.

Despite their best efforts, supporters of the project – mainly government partisans – have been unable to put the matter to rest.

The public and key segments of the population have raised important questions about the wisdom in choosing the west side over the east.

Farmers have long wondered why Manitobans had to accept a long, more costly transmission line that would potentially affect their agricultural livelihoods.

They’ve questioned why the line isn’t being built on the east side, where it would affect fewer landowners and existing infrastructure.

Most recently, First Nations leaders from the east side of the province have lobbied for the transmission line to be built through their area because it would likely be the only chance for development in their economically distressed communities.

Grand chief David Harper of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, a group of 30 First Nations in northern Manitoba, said east side communities would prefer to employ their own people in building the east side line.

More Manitoba residents are questioning why they should fork over almost $1 billion more, in most estimates, for a west side route when the east side route is almost 500 kilo-metres shorter.

Residents also question why they should support a plan that means the extra distance will result in a line loss every year of at least 28 megawatts.

The central argument used by the government to defend the west side route was its insistence that maintaining the pristine boreal forest on the east side was essential for a coveted UNESCO World Heritage site designation.

But it is not certain that obtaining UNESCO status and building the transmission line are mutually exclusive. The presence of power lines did not affect UNESCO designation in other places. So we need answers on that front.

It was also said that environmentalists would pressure American states not to buy Manitoba energy exports if the east side route went ahead. However, places like Minnesota already depend on coal plants, so how persuaded they would be by these environmentalists is not certain.

Of course, all of these questions would need to be answered with the best possible information. Assertions that building on the east side would threaten at-risk caribou herds need to be taken seriously but critically evaluated.

If there are significant savings from opting for the east side, where else could Manitoba invest those funds? Roads and other infrastructure? Core public services?

Questions are also being raised about the final price tag for the project. So, this is a matter of vast importance to the future of Manitoba.

In other words, it should be front and centre during the upcoming election season.