Manitoba Hydro granted environmental license for Bipole III project

Manitoba Hydro on Aug. 14 was granted the license needed under the Manitoba government’s Environment Act for the construction, operation and maintenance of the Bipole III transmission project, but the license issued by Manitoba’s Department of Water Conservation and Stewardship included an unprecedented number of conditions the developer must meet to ensure the protection of the province’s environment.

“The license for this project is in line with the strictest of any transmission line environmental license in the country,” Gord Mackintosh, Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister said in a statement announcing the issuance of the license. “The conditions are clear – any actions that would compromise Manitoba’s environment must be prevented or mitigated.”

The 68 conditions included in the license far exceeded the 26 licensing recommendations included in the 164-page report issued June 17 by the province’s Clean Environment Commission (CEC), following 10 weeks of public hearings and Crown-Aboriginal consultations held between October 2012 and March 2013. Most of the 42 additional conditions address issues and concerns that were raised during those hearings, though the project was also reviewed by a committee of provincial and federal government scientists and experts prior to the issuance of the license.

The license conditions require Manitoba Hydro to implement extensive wildlife monitoring programs to ensure the effective implementation of mitigation measures to protect a wide range of species; establish an easily accessible public website to share monitoring results, reports and evaluations of mitigation measures; and strengthen recommendations from the CEC by ensuring no net loss of wetlands, among other things.

Manitoba Hydro must also establish a new right-of-way clearing practice that protects coniferous forests and non-hazardous wildlife habitat trees, and protects lines of sight for aesthetic purposes; include provisions for consultation with farmers before tower placement is finalized to minimize the effects on farm operations; eliminate the use of herbicides during construction and during line maintenance in wildlife management areas and bogs, and use them in other areas during line maintenance only as a last resort; and submit annual reports on the success of mitigation measures used during construction including an assessment of the accuracy of predictions made about the use of natural resources.

As the project proceeds, Manitoba Hydro will also submit individual environmental protection plans for project phases to the director of environmental approval.  Two independent environmental audits will also be conducted; one when the project is completed and another five years after completion, to ensure environmental commitments were met, Mackintosh said.

The issuing of the license marks a milestone in what has been an extensive process marked by controversy.

In 2007, the provincial government chose a route for Bipole III that runs down the west side of the province, in an alignment longer than the route originally identified by Manitoba Hydro.

The route was selected to increase the reliability of the system without compromising an intact boreal forest that spans the Manitoba-Ontario border, which is a candidate for a UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Manitoba Hydro submitted its initial application for the project in December 2009 and the environmental impact statement (EIS) was submitted in December 2011. Following the CEC hearings, which some local and community groups opposed to the project sought to delay, the five-member board issued a report that included criticism of Manitoba Hydro’s EIS, which it characterized as “not well done,” “poorly constructed,” and “not well-written.”

Overcoming the limitations of the EIS, the CEC report noted, required “the generation of hundreds of information requests,” and an adjournment of 3½ months to allow Manitoba Hydro to conduct further assessment of certain sections of the proposed route. The CEC report noted that recommending that an environmental license not be issued “would have been the easy out,” and acknowledged the project’s importance to the economy of Manitoba, “both for risk-avoidance and future energy exports.”

Next steps include the coordination of federal and provincial environmental approvals between Manitoba Conservation and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency “to ensure a harmonized approach to environmental assessment of the project,” according to Manitoba Hydro’s project website.

For its part, Manitoba Hydro sees the issuance of the license as nearing the end of a long road.

“It’s been a rigorous process and a lot of work,” a Manitoba Hydro spokesperson told TransmissionHub Aug. 16.

The utility does not see any of the 68 conditions as insurmountable or a threat to timely completion of the project.

“Some of those will require more work than others in terms of some of the interactions and ongoing discussions with impacted parties [but] there’s nothing that will stop us moving ahead,” the spokesperson said. “We’re going to live up to our obligations and we’re going to approach it in a way that respects the conditions of the license.”

Despite the delayed process, the company still expects the project to be completed by the original target date of 2017.

“We’ve been moving ahead with the planning and working with getting contracts in place, and we’re mobilizing now for construction,” the spokesperson continued. “We’re optimistic that we’ll meet that timetable.”

Actual construction is expected to begin in the fall, with much of the work to be performed during the winter months.

The Bipole III project will run 860 miles and will cost more than C$3.3bn to build. When completed, it will link Manitoba Hydro’s northern power generating complex on the Lower Nelson River with the conversion and delivery system in southern Manitoba to improve reliability, increase capacity for future development, and sell surplus power to customers in the United States, according to Manitoba Hydro.