An abuse of power?

Elizabeth Brubaker

Contrary to promises made in 2010, Manitoba Hydro will expropriate land needed for its Bipole III high-voltage transmission line. By November 2014, the utility had acquired easements through voluntary agreements with about 250 landowners. It announced plans to forceably acquire the rest of the needed land from more than 150 owners: “To keep the project on schedule for the targeted 2018 in-service date, it is now necessary for Manitoba Hydro to initiate action to expropriate the remaining rights of way on private lands.”

Land acquisition strategies aren’t the only aspects of the transmission line that have changed since the project was first proposed. The configuration and the budget are also unrecognizable from the project’s early days. In September, the utility projected costs of $4.6 billion for the line – billions more than the initial estimate for an alternate route. Critics increasingly question the public benefits of the project, alleging that it is both uneconomic and unnecessary. Graham Lane, the former chairman of the Public Utilities Board, calls Hydro’s plans “unsound” and based on forecasts that are no longer applicable, and predicts that they will lead to a tripling of Manitoba’s electricity rates.

Objections to the transmission line extend far beyond its impact on ratepayers. Several First Nations are concerned about Bipole III’s effects on Manitoba’s forests, wildlife, and waters, on their traditional hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering rights, and on their sacred sites and burial grounds. In December, Sapotaweyak Cree Nation applied for an injunction to halt Hydro’s clearing a right-of-way through its ancestral lands. It demanded adequate consultation with Hydro and the provincial government, along with further funding to study the line. Last week, the judge dismissed the application. (He has not yet released written reasons for his decision.) Meanwhile, the Tataskweyak Cree Nation has blockaded a road to a Bipole III work camp in its territory, accusing Hydro of using “heavy-handed, bad-faith tactics” against them.

Farmers in the line’s path focus on other threatened harms, including interference with aerial spraying, irrigation systems, and fertilizing operations. They worry about weed control, soil compaction, liability issues, and, ultimately, the devaluation of their business and property. Farmers also worry that they will not be adequately compensated for their losses. Hydro claims it is offering to pay owners 150 percent of the market value of their land. But according to Graham Lane, “Hydro has drastically undervalued the land. The landowners have a completely different assessment.”

Whatever the nature of their objections, those along the line’s route have no forum in which to challenge the expropriation of their land: In November 2014, the Manitoba government waived the legal requirement for a public inquiry into whether the intended expropriation is fair and reasonably necessary. Landowners were outraged that they weren’t informed of the move. As one grain farmer told the Winnipeg Sun, “To be honest, I feel extremely violated in terms of property rights. You go to bed one night owning your land and the next day, you don’t own it. This is the premier exercising power without warning. It’s an abuse of power.”

Some of those facing expropriation have turned to the Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations for assistance in negotiating with the power behemoth. CAEPLA describes itself as “pro choice.” It opposes expropriation and argues that landowners should have “the right to say ‘No Thanks’ to a bad deal – just as any other business owner can.” The organization points out that landowners have a right to freedom of association and should be able to enter into – or refuse to enter into – business agreements regarding the use of their property.

Expropriation, CAEPLA explains, constitutes a transfer of wealth from landowners to the owners of the transmission line. The power monopoly ends up with a valuable asset on its balance sheet, and landowners end up with nothing but a liability, with no offsetting profits. CAEPLA advocates the reallocation of the transmission line’s costs, risks, and liabilities to where they belong –  Manitoba Hydro – through contracts that the power company and landowners negotiate voluntarily.

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To read more about expropriation for other transmission lines, see Corporate bullying: Expropriating for private purposes in Nova Scotia (which includes a discussion of the Maritime Link transmission project) and Expropriation in the news: The private projects edition (which includes a discussion of Dufferin Wind Power’s transmission line through Dufferin County, Ontario).

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