The Full Nelson
by Nelson Zandbergen
It’s probably no salve to the wounds of North Stormont’s wind project opponents: Having defeated the concerned citizens’ at the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal, foreign Nation Rise Wind Farm developer EDP Renewables has sold an 80 percent stake in the project to another party before the bulldozers supposedly arrive later this year.
As is sometimes said, “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” Instead of Portugal-based EDPR — whose single largest individual shareholders also happen to be state-owned entities in the land of Huawei — the real majority power on the ground in North Stormont is set to be good old familiar, warts-and-all “Quebec Inc.”
That metaphorical term refers to the nexus of big industry, provincial interest and — fortunately or unfortunately — crass politics as sometimes played in La Belle Province — and lately engulfing Ottawa with some rather grubby business.
Prime exemplar of ‘Quebec Inc.’ is none other than SNC-Lavalin, the behemoth engineering and development firm currently synonymous with the game of gag-the-justice-minister now embroiling the Trudeau government in a nasty scandal over suspected PMO meddling in a bribery prosecution.
It ought to come as no surprise that SNC-Lavalin also claims a number of alumni on the executive bench at Axium Infrastructure, the Quebec-based outfit that bought the lion’s share of Nation Rise from EDPR in late December. Principal among them is Axium co-founder President and CEO Pierre Anctil, a former executive vice president and member of the office of president at SNC-Lavalin and reputed provincial Liberal Party strategist. Anctil emerged none the worse for wear when Quebec’s anti-corruption Charbonneau Commission heard testimony from another SNC ex-vice president, Yves Cadotte, that his colleague had solicited company employees to write fat cheques to Quebec political parties, which SNC-Lavalin then reimbursed back to said employees as bonuses. As widely reported by the Quebec media, Cadotte alone was fined for that particular alleged scheme intended to circumvent provincial laws preventing corporate funding of political parties — presumably to ensure the continued flow of taxpayer-funded construction jobs into SNC-Lavalin’s Montreal headquarters. That’s but a small taste of the banana republic-ish history that ‘Quebec Inc.’ in general is still living down in the wake of the Commission’s good work.
One is tempted to joke that a company whose leadership emerged from a broader provincial milieu of greasing the wheel is well suited to own 33 gigantic spinning turbines in North Stormont and dozens of others elsewhere. In its latest acquisition, Axium Infrastructure bought the 100-megawatt Nation Rise and a couple of other “on-shore” North American wind projects — totalling 499 megawatts — for a reported $860-million.
The irony here is that Ontario hydro ratepayers are ultimately funding the Nation Rise purchase by Axium— let’s say it represents a quarter of that $860-million plus a healthy profit over 20 years — with the buyer being rooted in a province also known for making the best, most reliable and affordable ‘green’ energy going — tried-and-true hydroelectric. Critics of Ontario’s now largely wound-up wind and solar spending spree have long complained Ontario would have been further ahead to source more power from that other ‘Quebec Inc.’ power player, Hydro Quebec. Rather, hundreds of millions of dollars will instead flow into the coffers at Axium and its minority partner EDPR over the next two decades, for fewer megawatts of electricity only supplied when the wind blows. ‘Ontario Inc.’ can hardly claim smug superiority over ‘Quebec Inc.’ by fostering deals like that.
There are further layers of irony surrounding the local project, now the subject of a desperate last appeal to Ontario’s energy minister by North Stormont’s Concerned Citizens’ group. Nation Rise remains the only Ontario wind project slated to break ground in a municipality that is both an unwilling host and, perhaps most ironically, in a riding held by the Ford Conservatives. Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry MPP Jim McDonell stands alone among his caucus colleagues in having to tell his opposed constituents that their wind project must go ahead. And the Ford government, broadly speaking, seems to be treating the coming project in McDonell’s district as something like the exception that proves the rule of their actual policy.
Incidentally, a spokesperson for Energy, Northern Affairs and Mines Minister Greg Rickford has echoed McDonell’s talking points on the subject, confirming for NVN last month that Nation Rise “can’t be cancelled” — and that’s none too hopeful a harbinger for the concerned citizens’ recently submitted appeal to the minister. “The Nation Rise Project, like many industrial wind farms across rural Ontario, was a project forced upon the people of North Stormont by the previous Wynne government,” Rickford’s press secretary Sydney Stonier wrote in a Jan. 28 email. “We have taken action to prevent this from ever happening again, by restoring power to municipalities to stop large projects like Nation Rise that lack community support. This power was stripped away from municipalities through the Green Energy Act, which was repealed by our government last fall.
“As promised during the election campaign, our government took strong action to wind down over 750 contracts for wasteful and expensive energy projects that had not yet obtained key milestones. This single action saved electricity customers $790 million. The NationRise Project could not be wound down because it met several of its development milestones, per the terms of its contract. By cancelling this project now and the province violating the contract signed by the Liberal government, electricity customers would be on the hook for additional costs.”
It is indeed ironic that a community that has consistently mounted significant opposition to the project and placed its hopes in the Tory platform now finds itself on the receiving end of a “too-costly-to-cancel” argument that might have come straight from the lips of candidate Kathleen Wynne in the last election.
And the project — with its intriguing, tangential connections to roiling matters at both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park — continues to be officially opposed by the decision-makers in Berwick, if that means anything. The newly elected township council effectively reaffirmed that position by launching a Freedom of Information request to provincial authorities in a bid to see the contract between EDPR and Ontario’s Independent Electricity Systems Operator (IESO). North Stormont Mayor Jim Wert and his colleagues opted to take that action as a way of showing that they are, in the words of Councillor Roxane Villeneuve at the Feb. 12 meeting, still trying to “do something” about the coming turbine invasion.
In a final irony, Nation Rise developer EDPR has been in the news for the last number of months over reported plans by a Chinese shareholder to seize control of the firm by hoovering up the majority of its stock. The bid by China Three Gorges, wholly owned by the authoritarian People’s Republic of China, has been described as a hostile takeover attempt in at least one industry report. Might it be that EDPR’s current leadership is rather protective of their proverbial turf and horizons, too?