Last fall, Northvolt announced a plan to build a $5 billion battery factory with an annual capacity of 65 GWh near McMasterville and Saint-Basile-le-Grand in the province of Quebec east of Montreal. Northvolt was happy because the location gave it access to plentiful, low cost hydropower. The company is committed to manufacturing batteries with the lowest embedded carbon content and using zero emission electricity to build them was a major plus.
Another big plus was a package of federal and provincial incentives designed to equal or exceed those available in the US via the Inflation Reduction Act. The Canadian government and Quebec’s provincial government committed to pay about $2.7 billion (Canadian) toward the estimated construction cost of the project plus $4.6 billion (Canadian) in operating subsidies. Those subsidies match what Northvolt could have received under the Inflation Reduction Act if the factory were sited in the US.
In return, the governments get up to 3000 new jobs in an area where employment opportunities in the manufacturing sector are limited. Everybody wins — the company, the province, the country, and the Earth, which will see carbon emissions drop when all those new electric cars take to the streets.
Environmentalists Sue To Protect Trees And Wetlands
But construction at the site of the new Northvolt factory was halted temporarily recently because of a lawsuit filed by the Centre Québécois du Droit de L’Environnement and three local residents. They claim the permitting for the project was rushed through and failed to take into account several factors that will degrade the local environment. According to Bloomberg, the plaintiffs said in their court filing, “This decision is unreasonable given the minister’s responsibility to protect wetlands and the species that live there.” They say the government rejected a residential project on the same land last year and that it did not impose conditions to compensate for the losses caused by the construction of the Northvolt factory.
The group’s lawyer, Jessica Leblanc, presented a number of documents in court, including one she described as an assessment from a government biologist who said the information provided by Northvolt was insufficient to evaluate the impact on wildlife on the site. She said it was “unreasonable” for the Quebec Environment Department to authorize Northvolt to begin work on the site because it didn’t have enough information on the environmental impacts.
That authorization was also given on the condition that Northvolt propose a plan to mitigate the impacts of any biodiversity loss, but that it was given three years to do so, according to the Montreal Gazette. As part of the approval, the Environmental Department wrote that, in order to mitigate the impact on wildlife habitat, the company “has committed to creating, restoring or conserving natural environments over an area to be determined, which will be of equal ecological value.”
The Guardian reports that environmentalists and First Nations members oppose the project because they fear it will destroy 170 hectares (420 acres) of wetlands and woodlands, killing or displacing at-risk species. “This site contains areas of high ecological value — so much so that a previous housing project on the same site was refused by the minister of environment less than a year ago,” said Marc Bishai, a lawyer with the Quebec Environmental Law Center. “According to the ministry’s own experts, the wetlands on this site are among the last in the region and provide precious ecological functions and habitat for at-risk species.”
Last week, the court ruled against the environmentalists and in favor of the company, noting the company has promised to plant 24,000 trees to replace the 8,730 trees it plans to cut down to clear the site. “This approach, which consists of destroying now and protecting later, without knowing precisely where, when, or how, is in no way reassuring in the context of the biodiversity loss crisis,” the law center said in a statement following the judge’s decision. “We won’t declare defeat.”
Readers may recall that something similar happened in Grünheide, Germany when Tesla decided to build its first German factory there. That area had previously been scouted for a possible BMW factory but the company thought the environmental issues were too challenging there and decided to look elsewhere. Tesla, like Northvolt, promised to plant trees in other areas to offset the trees that needed to be cut down for its factory.
A Regulatory Change Benefits Northvolt
Bishai says recent change to the province’s environmental regulations, made shortly before the Northvolt plant was announced, means the size of the site no longer reaches the threshold that would trigger an independent environmental review. Such a review would have been required before the regulation was changed, however.
“The government so far has denied that it was that this change was bespoke for this company, but it undermines public confidence when a change like this is done so close to the announcement of a project, which has significant government financial support and is moving so quickly,” he said and added that neither the company nor the government has shown an interest in halting the project and entering into a voluntary review process.
Separately the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke has announced that it is filing a lawsuit alleging that the Quebec and Canadian governments failed in their obligation to adequately consult both the public and Indigenous communities before approving the plant. “The site contains some of the highest quality wetlands in the region,” the council said in a statement, arguing that the laws that govern work in wetlands fail to “consider, let alone respect, Indigenous rights.”
For some activists, however, the court action is too slow and cumbersome a process. Last week an anonymous group claimed responsibility for driving steel bars and nails into the trunks of at least 100 trees in an attempt to damage logging equipment and sabotage construction. The group said they had identified the trees with spray paint.
“To stop Northvolt, we need to multiply our tactics and hit where it hurts — causing economic risk and uncertainty. We gave the forest weapons to defend itself!” the group wrote on the Montreal Counter Information website, a self-described anarchist forum. The group called for “broad mobilization” against the plant and criticized the Quebec government for spending billions to perpetuate “car culture” instead of investing in other low-carbon transportation alternatives.
“We must attack this destructive machine for crushing life by targeting its weak points. Let’s sabotage the equipment, block the construction sites, and harass the industry’s elected representatives. The environmental movement must redouble its efforts.”
Marc Bishai says that governments are working at “breakneck speed” to approve similar projects but more discussion and transparency is needed. “These big issues and questions are exactly what an independent environmental assessment is designed to grapple with. It’s designed to have people understand the project and its impacts not only locally, but also more broadly, on the society, on the economy, on the environment.” He added that with more rigorous review, projects often leave with better social license and increased public support. “What we’re asking for — what many people are asking for — is to finally have the social debate about these issues.”
When we wrote about the Northvolt factory in Quebec last year, it was to celebrate the news that a major new battery factory was coming to North America to help move the EV revolution forward. Now it seems everything about the factory may not be quite as delightful as it appeared to be originally. The groups opposing the project are not your typical NIMBY types. Bishai makes it clear his group is not trying to stop the factory, They simply want their voices and their concerns heard, rather than having the federal and provincial governments come in and “big foot” local concerns.
There is also an echo of a topic that occasionally gets attention here at CleanTechnica — how many cars are enough? Are there alternatives to private automobiles that should be explored now that we know cars in general have contributed so much to the gathering climate crisis? At the very heart of this debate is the notion that underlies all capitalist endeavors — the desire for unlimited growth in perpetuity. Perhaps the debate about “car culture” the radicals in Montreal seem to want is a discussion worth having.
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