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Conawapa drums beat
Winnipeg Free Press

CONAWAPA, Conawapa, Conawapa. You can't help but hear the rhythm in that word. Like a drum beat, the name of Conawapa, a Blackfoot Indian who guided Anthony Henday up the Nelson River and across the Prairies to "discover" the Rocky Mountains, has sounded in Manitoba for decades.

Premier Gary Doer was a junior cabinet minister when he first heard the drum beat, and he hears it still. Former premier Gary Filmon certainly heard it the day that he and then Ontario premier David Peterson signed a deal in 1989 to have the power dam built at a cost of $5.5 billion. No doubt Mr. Filmon imagined then that by now Conawapa would be a huge success and legacy item. But that deal signed Dec. 7, 1989, collapsed with Ontario paying $150-million compensation for Manitoba's costs.

But the Conawapa drum beats still, apparently more loudly. Premier Doer and beleaguered Ontario Premier Ernie Eves were beating it on Friday at Kakabeka Falls, that lovely spot west of Thunder Bay, making it evident that they had at least put a lot of thought into the selection of a site to sign an agreement to look once more at building a $1-billion hydro line to carry Conawapa power to Toronto. Mr. Eves seemed confident that this time the project would be a go. But that will not likely occur until after he faces an election, which he is likely to lose.

Mr. Doer, as we know, wants to build, build, build hydro dams up north to help save the planet from greenhouse gases and to create short-term jobs and economic activity. He seemed so confident that this is the right thing to do that he complained that Ottawa should speed up the environmental approval process. Mr. Doer already has shown some disregard for these processes by deciding that the Clean Environment Commission should do approval work in Manitoba, rather than the Public Utilities Board, which has the actual expertise needed.

It would appear that Prime Minister Jean Chretien is onside -- Ottawa is contributing $300,000 to the $2 million study launched Friday. Both Mr. Doer and Mr. Eves hope that Ottawa contributes significantly more, perhaps bankrolling the $1 billion line. But no matter Mr. Chretien's enthusiasm, the fact is that he will be comfortably retired before even the preliminary studies are completed.

Hydro CEO Bob Brennan was all for building a $1-billion transmission line from the North through pristine eastern Manitoba within three years. This $1-billion line, you understand, is in addition to the other $1 billion line through Northwestern Ontario. Mr. Brennan is a trusted and proven leader at Manitoba Hydro, but there have been no mega-projects done on his watch. The chance to end that long dearth of hydro mega-projects echoes in the throb Conawapa, Conawapa, Conawapa.

Two fundamental issues go unheard over the din of the drumbeat. The first is the time frame. Conawapa could be built in eight years, at greater cost, or in 12 years at lesser cost. Either way, that's a long time from now. Ontario desperately needs electricity now. It will not wait eight years to get at least some of that electricity. If Ontarians are willing to pay a lot for electricity today, what will they pay in eight or 12 years? The Ontario market is at least partially deregulated, which means that only a fool would pay a premium today for electricity in eight or 12 years. A deal can be struck. But what we need to know is not whether building Conawapa will create an economic party in Manitoba, but whether Manitobans will suffer a hangover as a result.

The other issues is: Why Conawapa? Is it the incessant beat that drives Conawapa to the exclusion of better options? One simple option was touched on at Kakabeka Falls. To prevent brownouts in energy-starved Ontario, the Eves government has been required to issue edicts to Ontarians to turn off unnecessary appliances. It makes people mad. But more mad is the reluctance to enforce conservation as the answer to electricity shortage, as opposed to building Conawapa to guarantee the freedom to waste.

Another option would be to turn off the Conawapa drumbeat and examine alternatives. The Ontario electricity market follows the lay of the land. East of Wawa, electricity flows east to Toronto, which also draws electricity west from Quebec. West of Wawa, electricity flows west to Manitoba or east to Wawa. In other words, Manitoba's natural market in Ontario is between Winnipeg and Wawa. In that region are two terrible polluters, coal plants in Atikokan and Thunder Bay which together generate about 450 kilowatts. Manitoba could serve that market more easily, more economically, more sustainably, and with less risk than by seeking to keep the lights on in Toronto. But to do so one would have to be thinking more clearly than our leaders appear to be.

There is no reason that Ontario and Manitoba could not demand $1 billion from Ottawa to help reduce consumption so that everybody, including Mother Nature, is better off for the same expenditure. We could build smaller dams to supply Northwestern Ontario, or we could build Conawapa as we have had pounded into us for two decades and forego Wuskwatin or Gull Rapids. But such a decision would mean that aboriginal bands who have been promised a share of those dams would go to the end of the waiting line.

The Doer government has just won a confident majority that could last five years. Why are we being hyped to do something that could better be done at a more sober, open minded and responsible pace?

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