NYC Plans to Import Canadian Hydropower. Who Really Benefits?
A Canadian utility with dams like this Québec facility would source the electricity for Champlain Hudson from its existing network—without building any new hydropower. | Société Des Musées de Québec

NYC Plans to Import Canadian Hydropower. Who Really Benefits?

A planned transmission line from Canada is meant to reduce NYC's fossil fuel dependence. But First Nations say the project ignores them - and New York environmental advocates say it won't even benefit the climate.

Lucien Wabononik is sick of people getting rich at his expense. A member of the Nation Anishnabe du Lac Simon, he is fighting alongside members of several other First Nations in the Canadian province of Quebec against a plan to export hydroelectricity to the United States from territory Indigenous peoples have lived on for thousands of years. “There’s nothing offered to us,” he told New York Focus, explaining his opposition to the project. “We don’t benefit at all.”

The utility Hydro-Québec, which is owned by the provincial government, made $780 million in profits in 2017 by sending electricity from its network of hydro plants and reservoirs south of the Canadian border. Construction is expected to begin this year on the Champlain Hudson Power Express, a new 335-mile transmission line from Quebec to New York City.

More than one-third of the electricity for the Champlain Hudson project could come from territories Wabononik and his allies say First Nations never surrendered to Canadian authorities. “We were not even consulted on this project,” Wabononik said of the transmission line. “Again and again, they’re ignoring our people.”

Wabononik’s community of Lac Simon had a median income of just $12,288 in 2015, compared to about $33,000 for the province overall. In the Anishnabe community of Kitcisakik, residents lack sewage systems and running water. They have to use noisy and unreliable generators for their electricity—even though there is a hydro reservoir on the town’s shoreline, operated by Hydro-Québec. It was built to send power elsewhere in the province, not for the Indigenous people living right beside it.

The impact of Hydro-Québec damming rivers to create 4,000 square miles of reservoirs over the past century has been devastating to the region’s original inhabitants, court filings say. “It resulted in the forced and brutal removal of our members from their traditional territories and their settlement on reservations that were not and are still not structured to ensure the economic well-being of our populations,” reads a document sent by some Quebec First Nations in October to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Champlain Hudson, a crucial element of Hydro-Québec’s plan to double revenues to around $27 billion by 2030, could make these disparities even more extreme. Once the transmission line is built, Hydro-Québec’s revenues will soar and the utility will have fewer incentives to negotiate with the First Nations in Wabononik’s coalition, none of whom have been able to reach compensation agreements. “We see this as another project that’s going to have a negative impact to our rights,” he said.

Pressure mounts for clean replacement to Indian Point

In New York, meanwhile, elected officials are under growing pressure from climate advocates to build new clean energy infrastructure. Once the Indian Point nuclear plant closes next spring due to declining revenues and safety concerns, New York City’s reliance on climate-harming energy is expected to soar. Fossil fuels may supply as much as 86 percent of the city’s power needs by 2022, up from 67 percent in 2018.

In these circumstances, and as they look to meet aggressive state climate targets, lawmakers have billed Champlain-Hudson as a relatively quick and easy solution. Calling global temperature rise an “existential threat,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told Crains in late November that “ignoring vast amounts of zero-emission hydropower ready today would be a mistake.”

Champlain Hudson’s developer says it already possesses all the permits necessary to begin building. Transmission Developers recently told a Washington County Board of Supervisors meeting in the state’s north that construction on the transmission line, which will run six miles from the Quebec border under Lake Champlain before continuing due south under the Hudson River to New York City, is likely to begin in late 2021.

Governor Andrew Cuomo is also enthusiastic. “Let’s run the cable, the transmission lines from Canada to New York City to get that power down here and let’s stop talking and let’s start doing. Let’s invigorate this whole renewable market,” he said last summer.

Yet New York’s major environmental advocacy groups don’t support the proposal. Organizations like Sierra Club and Riverkeeper, along with smaller-scale power producers, criticize the project for crowding out other forms of renewable development—and claim it won’t even decrease emissions.

One reason for their skepticism: Hydro-Québec would source the electricity for the Champlain Hudson project from its existing network of hydro facilities—without building any new hydropower. This means it largely re-routes electricity that is already on the grid, experts and environmental advocates said. It would make New York’s electricity cleaner on a city and state level, climate advocates said, without substantially reducing net global emissions.

Instead of shuffling around existing supplies of clean energy, organizations like the International Energy Agency argue, governments should focus on aggressively building new low-carbon energy sources.

A report earlier this year commissioned by the Independent Power Producers of New York (IPPNY), a trade group representing energy companies competing with Hydro-Québec to supply the state’s electricity needs, questioned whether the project would actually be beneficial for the climate. “Without new power generation,” the study reads, “the purchase of electricity over [the transmission line] would result in no measurable reduction in carbon emissions.”

“It’s true that there are no new hydro generation facilities being built for this project, those have to be built beforehand,” Hydro-Québec spokesperson Gary Sutherland told New York Focus. But if existing hydro produced in Quebec can be used to prevent new fossil fuel power from coming onto the grid in New York City, he said, that would be equivalent to removing one-quarter of the current cars from the city’s streets. “This project will definitely help to reduce emissions,” he added.

Regulators in New Hampshire were not persuaded by similar arguments in favor of hydroelectric re-routing when they rejected a transmission line in 2018 that also would have carried power from Hydro-Québec. In that decision, the state’s siting committee found that “no actual greenhouse gas emission reductions would be realized if no new source of hydropower is introduced and the power delivered by the Project to New England is simply diverted from Ontario or New York.”

Brad Hager, an earth scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told New York Focus that to measure the actual climate impact of Champlain Hudson, analysts need to consider the wider power system — not just a single city or state’s emissions. “I believe that the regulators reached the correct conclusion,” he said of New Hampshire dismissing Hydro-Québec’s promise of climate gains without building new capacity.

A better way to make New York City’s electric grid cleaner would be to source the power directly from clean energy producers across the state, according to Gavin Donohue, IPPNY’s President and CEO. That would result in actual new projects being built, as well as local investment and jobs. “We have all these renewable assets that are more beneficial,” he told New York Focus.

Transmission Developers, which is owned by Blackstone, the world’s largest alternative asset manager, argues there’s no reason we can’t have both. “The need for renewable power is massive,” Jennifer Laird-White, a vice president at Transmission Developers, told New York Focus, citing New York state’s ambitious goal of 70 percent clean energy by 2030. Even after the Champlain Hudson transmission line is built, she said, there will still be “plenty of room for many additional renewable projects.”

If that scenario plays out, it could be despite Champlain Hudson and not because of it, Donohue said. The transmission line as currently proposed doesn’t have converter stations upstate, which would allow renewable projects in the north to connect and send their power through it. “It’s essentially an extension cord from Montreal to New York,” he said.

The Sierra Club agrees that Champlain Hudson isn’t designed to grow the state’s clean energy sector. While de Blasio has enthusiastically supported Canadian hydropower, the group points out, he so far hasn’t acted on calls from organizations such as NY Offshore Wind Alliance and Alliance for Clean Energy New York to offer a competitive request for proposals for locally-based projects.

“Beyond squeezing out in-state renewables and energy efficiency, Mayor de Blasio refuses to acknowledge the long, devastating impacts Canadian hydro has to Indigenous communities and our environment,” Sierra Club campaign manager Lisa Dix argued this summer. “New Yorkers should not be forced into buying destructive power when we have the ability to build our own clean energy economy right here.”

Given all that, critics say, Champlain Hudson looks less like the pathway to the vision described in New York’s Community Leadership and Community Protection Act—which aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions 85 percent by 2050 while addressing historic racial and economic disparities—and more like a continuation of an existing system where projects of dubious environmental benefit are built on the backs of Indigenous peoples and other disadvantaged communities.

“This project may chip away at fossil fuel emissions,” said Robert Galbraith, a researcher with a Buffalo-based corporate watchdog group called the Public Accountability Initiative. But by primarily benefiting Blackstone, which oversees $584 billion assets and has close ties to Governor Cuomo, as well as a Canadian utility whose revenues comes from hydro-projects on territory First Nations say is unceded, it “will further reinforce and entrench existing economic and political power dynamics,” he said.

The clean energy future that Champlain Hudson represents, Galbraith said, is one in which large politically-connected companies get rich while existing racial and economic disparities stay largely the same.

First Nations await settlement

The Mayor can’t plead ignorance to the concerns of First Nations. Last year, his office sent three delegates to Quebec to meet with Indigenous leaders about Champlain Hudson. Gerald Hervieux, an elected band counsellor with the Pessamit Innu First Nation, took part in that process. “They listened very carefully to what the Pessamit had to say,” the French-speaking Hervieux told New York Focus through a translator.

But listening is one thing and responding is another, Hervieux argued. If de Blasio takes the First Nations’ interests seriously, advocates said, he shouldn’t support the project until Hydro-Québec finds a way to compensate Indigenous peoples for the massive cultural and environmental disruptions caused by decades of constructing unwanted hydro projects on their territories. “People in New York should realize that we never gave any authorization to Hydro-Québec to build these facilities,” he said. “We want them to recognize the suffering of our nation.”

Over the past seven decades, more than a dozen hydro power stations and 11 reservoirs sited on the Pessamit First Nation’s traditional territories have transformed a landscape it has lived on long before European settlers arrived. The 3,170 square miles of hydroelectric reservoirs eroded river banks and destroyed salmon spawning grounds, reducing the amount of fish community members catch on the Betsiamites River from 1,200 per year before the dams to 170 now, a decline also attributed to climate change and commercial fishing. These and other impacts from industrial encroachment broke up communities, made it much harder to hunt and trap and resulted in economic disparities that persist to this day—the median income for Pessamit members is under $16,000.

Hydro-Québec has signed compensation agreements with some First Nations, including a 2002 deal with the Cree First Nation to receive $70 million a year up to 2050. But despite years of negotiation, no settlement has been reached with the Pessamit. “That’s an ongoing back and forth dialogue until we can get to an agreement,” Sutherland said. Nothing has been signed either with the other First Nations who wrote the U.S. Department of Energy earlier this fall.

To Wabononik, the clean energy future New York City leaders envision feels like another dirty chapter in a long colonial history of wealthy and powerful outsiders profiting from his territory. “This isn’t green to us at all,” he said.

Gas plant in Newburgh tests limits of NY’s landmark climate law
Gas plant in Newburgh tests limits of NY’s landmark climate law
Can New York meet its emissions goals if it green-lights more fossil fuel infrastructure? A proposal to rebuild a fracked-gas plant will set the precedent....

By

Health Care Costs for Retired City Workers Could Dramatically Increase Under City Plan
Health Care Costs for Retired City Workers Could Dramatically Increase Under City Plan
A quarter million retired city workers could be left with bigger health insurance bills and fewer doctor choices under a city plan to change their health insurance....

By

A New Threat to New York’s Clean Energy Goals: Bitcoin Mining
A New Threat to New York’s Clean Energy Goals: Bitcoin Mining
A Finger Lakes power plant plans to ramp up energy-intensive Bitcoin mining. If the state allows it to proceed, environmentalists warn dozens of fossil-fueled plants could follow....

By

Thousands of New Yorkers are in Prison for Life. These D.A. Candidates Want to Change That
Thousands of New Yorkers are in Prison for Life. These D.A. Candidates Want to Change That
Manhattan D.A. candidates vow to reduce lengthy sentences—but sharp differences between their approaches remain...

By

What Made It Into The Budget – And What Was Left Out
What Made It Into The Budget – And What Was Left Out
The major provisions of New York's 2021 budget....

By , and

Homelessness Priorities Won’t Make the State Budget, Lawmakers and Advocates Say
Homelessness Priorities Won’t Make the State Budget, Lawmakers and Advocates Say
“A year from now, this money will still be in the hands of Governor Cuomo, unused - and that’s exactly what he wants.”...

By

“A byzantine and high-bar system”: Governor pushes to saddle undocumented workers fund with documentation requirements
“A byzantine and high-bar system”: Governor pushes to saddle undocumented workers fund with documentation requirements
State lawmakers and workers' rights advocates warned that burdensome proof-of-employment requirements may mean the funds go unspent....

By

Will New York’s Rent Relief Program Address The Problems that Hobbled The Last One?
Will New York’s Rent Relief Program Address The Problems that Hobbled The Last One?
Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing to impose stringent requirements, according to lawmakers and tenant advocates, that could delay and decrease aid....

By

Where are the Safe Injection Facilities Cuomo Promised for New York?
Where are the Safe Injection Facilities Cuomo Promised for New York?
He committed three years ago to supporting safe injection sites for drug users — then reversed course, activists say. Now, they see a new chance to pressure the embattled governor....

By

Legislature Seeks to End “Arbitrary Limit” on Medicaid Spending
Legislature Seeks to End “Arbitrary Limit” on Medicaid Spending
A 2011 rule prevents New York from adequately funding Medicaid, advocates say. This year’s budget could see it repealed. ...

By

Will Rental Vouchers to Prevent Homelessness Make the State Budget?
Will Rental Vouchers to Prevent Homelessness Make the State Budget?
The legislature is pushing for a statewide rental assistance program that advocates say would be one the largest efforts to combat homelessness in recent memory....

By

New York’s biggest climate problem—and opportunity
New York’s biggest climate problem—and opportunity
Buildings may be New York’s top source of emissions. The state should follow the city’s lead in cleaning them up....

By

In an Upstate Jail, Incarcerated People Struggle to Access Promised Addiction Treatment
In an Upstate Jail, Incarcerated People Struggle to Access Promised Addiction Treatment
In 2019, Broome County promised an addiction treatment program in its jail. Two years later, the program is a “farce,” one advocate said. ...

By

Records Reveal New York’s Growing Mountain of Water Debt
Records Reveal New York’s Growing Mountain of Water Debt
Advocates are pushing the legislature to extend and strengthen a moratorium on water shutoffs set to expire at the end of the month....

By

Legislative Leadership to Propose $7 Billion in New Taxes, Sources Say
Legislative Leadership to Propose $7 Billion in New Taxes, Sources Say
Tax-the-rich advocates critiqued the figure as too low, and also said the Assembly is significantly behind the Senate on key progressive spending priorities....

By

Queens Public Defenders Win Unionization Vote
Queens Public Defenders Win Unionization Vote
After months of conflict involving alleged intimidation and potentially illegal firings, workers at Queens Defenders voted overwhelmingly to unionize....

By

“It Damages Democracy:” Watchdogs, Reporters, Slam “Non-Functional” Board of Elections Campaign Finance Website
“It Damages Democracy:” Watchdogs, Reporters, Slam “Non-Functional” Board of Elections Campaign Finance Website
Flaws in an updated website make it extremely difficult to track who is funding campaigns, journalists and watchdogs say, but the BOE insists that “the site is fully functioning.” ...

By

Will New York allow incarcerated people to access treatment for drug addiction?
Will New York allow incarcerated people to access treatment for drug addiction?
"People in prison deserve healthcare, and this is healthcare.” Legislators push to offer treatment for drug addiction in jails and prisons...

By

“Mired in Incrementalism”: Climate Action Council Proceedings Alarm Climate Advocates
“Mired in Incrementalism”: Climate Action Council Proceedings Alarm Climate Advocates
Under New York's climate law, the Climate Action Council is tasked with devising a plan to zero out emissions. Environmentalists on the Council say it's not on track....

By

In Manhattan D.A. Race, Momentum Builds to Decriminalize Sex Work
In Manhattan D.A. Race, Momentum Builds to Decriminalize Sex Work
In a striking sign of activists' success, most candidates running in the June election for DA say they would not prosecute cases involving consensual sex work....

By

“We Need to Hold Him Accountable”: After Sexual Harassment Allegations, Legislators Search for Ways to Respond
“We Need to Hold Him Accountable”: After Sexual Harassment Allegations, Legislators Search for Ways to Respond
With the state ethics commission widely seen as controlled by the governor, legislators are looking for other ways to investigate the allegations....

By

Top state lawmakers oppose Cuomo’s push to override NYC’s landmark climate law
Top state lawmakers oppose Cuomo’s push to override NYC’s landmark climate law
A new analysis finds that the governor’s proposal would “completely undermine” New York City’s climate law, setting the stage for a clash with the newly emboldened legislature....

By

As State Support Dwindles, New York’s Overdose Crisis is Only Getting Worse
As State Support Dwindles, New York’s Overdose Crisis is Only Getting Worse
State withholds have left harm reduction providers undersupplied, and informal overdose prevention networks are struggling to fill the gap....

By

Queens Defenders Fires Two Pro-Union Employees
Queens Defenders Fires Two Pro-Union Employees
Amid an ongoing union election at the Queens indigent defense law firm, two outspoken union supporters were fired without warning....

By

“It’s a life or death situation out here”: a brutal winter for unsheltered New Yorkers
“It’s a life or death situation out here”: a brutal winter for unsheltered New Yorkers
“We sleep together like chickens”: Street homeless New Yorkers describe the struggle to endure the pandemic-era winter....

By

Will Manhattan’s Next D.A. Break Ranks With Tough-on-Crime Colleagues?
Will Manhattan’s Next D.A. Break Ranks With Tough-on-Crime Colleagues?
Three candidates in the June election say they would not join the association of state DAs, which has fought measures such as bail reform....

By

“What am I to do?” An oral history of mothering children in online school
“What am I to do?” An oral history of mothering children in online school
“I’m the security guard, a mother, a father, a teacher, I’m everything." Parents and children reflect on a year of remote learning and its impact on their finances, mental health, and family....

By

Will New York Decriminalize Syringe Possession in 2021?
Will New York Decriminalize Syringe Possession in 2021?
Amid dramatic spikes in drug overdoses and HIV cases, legislators and public health professionals push for New York to decriminalize sterile syringes. ...

By

Cuomo’s Tax Hike Friendlier to the Rich Than Advertised, Budget Experts and Legislators Say
Cuomo’s Tax Hike Friendlier to the Rich Than Advertised, Budget Experts and Legislators Say
"The governor’s twisting himself in knots to not offend rich people,” the number two Democrat in the state Senate said....

By

Tali Farhadian Weinstein’s Run for Manhattan D.A. Fueled By Wall St Megadonors, Filings Show
Tali Farhadian Weinstein’s Run for Manhattan D.A. Fueled By Wall St Megadonors, Filings Show
A leading candidate for Manhattan DA has raked in two thirds of her campaign funds from five-figure donations—many from financial industries she would be in charge of prosecuting....

By

NYC Plans to Import Canadian Hydropower. Who Really Benefits?
NYC Plans to Import Canadian Hydropower. Who Really Benefits?
A planned transmission line from Canada is meant to reduce NYC's fossil fuel dependence. But First Nations say the project ignores them - and New York environmental advocates say it won't even benefit...

By

Progressives Slam State Senate Finance Secretary Pick
Progressives Slam State Senate Finance Secretary Pick
Democratic leadership appointed David Friedfel, the top state policy analyst at the Citizens Budget Commission, to a key staff position in budget negotiations....

By and

The Next Mayor Must Launch a Green New Deal for NYC
The Next Mayor Must Launch a Green New Deal for NYC
Here are the policies candidates for Mayor and Council must commit to enacting if they're serious about a Green New Deal for New York City....

By

Queens Public Defenders Push to Unionize. Management Calls Them a ‘Mob.’
Queens Public Defenders Push to Unionize. Management Calls Them a ‘Mob.’
A wave of legal aid attorneys are joining the labor movement. But bosses say it’s bad for business and the unions just want to collect their dues....

By

Tenants Can’t Pay Rent. Landlords Won’t Pay Bills. What Happens Next?
Tenants Can’t Pay Rent. Landlords Won’t Pay Bills. What Happens Next?
New York’s looming foreclosure crisis could lead to massive corporate windfalls - or to large-scale social housing conversions. The choice is ours....

By

New York Must Stop All Evictions. It’s a Matter of Life and Death.
New York Must Stop All Evictions. It’s a Matter of Life and Death.
New York must immediately reinstate a complete eviction moratorium, incoming DSA legislators argue, because you can’t stay at home if you’re forced out of it....

By and

Senate Proposes $4 Billion December Revenue Package, but Assembly Won’t Go That High, Sources Say
Senate Proposes $4 Billion December Revenue Package, but Assembly Won’t Go That High, Sources Say
The Senate has proposed raising $4 billion in revenue before the end of the year, but the Assembly is unwilling go much higher than $2 billion, sources say....

By

Assembly Speaker Heastie May be Holding Up Blanket Eviction Moratorium, Despite Senate Consensus
Assembly Speaker Heastie May be Holding Up Blanket Eviction Moratorium, Despite Senate Consensus
Sources both inside and outside the legislature say Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is pushing back against the Senate Democrats' proposal for a blanket moratorium....

By

The D.A. Election That Could Reshape New York City’s War On Drugs
The D.A. Election That Could Reshape New York City’s War On Drugs
The office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor is on the chopping block in Manhattan's 2021 DA race....

By

Inside Upstate New York’s Lead Poisoning Crisis
Inside Upstate New York’s Lead Poisoning Crisis
Many upstate cities don't test old houses for lead poisoning until after children have already tested positive. A new bill would change that....

By

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Be the first to hear about our stories - and get a nugget of NY history each week!