Opposition to Northvolt in Quebec stems from Legault government’s inconsistency: experts

By Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press

In late September, Quebec Premier François Legault announced his government had attracted the largest private manufacturing investment in the province’s history, which he said would transform Quebec into a global player in the electric vehicle supply chain.

He lauded it as the “greenest electric battery factory in the world,” but since then, the $7-billion project has managed to anger many across the province — particularly environmentalists.

“Satisfying everyone is an impossibility, but satisfying nobody seems like a pretty mean feat to pull off,” said Moshe Lander, a senior lecturer in economics at Montreal’s Concordia University.

In the rush to attract Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt’s factory, the Legault government committed $2.9 billion while Ottawa chipped in $4.4 billion. And the province quietly changed environmental regulations that resulted in the project avoiding Quebec’s public consultations bureau, known as the BAPE.

The reaction was swift. An environmental group sued; Quebecers complained that the price tag was too high at a time when Legault was crying poverty during salary negotiations with teachers and nurses; and vandals sabotaged the work site east of Montreal by driving metal bars into trees, hoping to damage clear-cutting machinery. Then, last week, bottles filled with flammable liquid attached to detonators were found under equipment at the site.

Marc Bishai, a lawyer with the group that is suing Quebec — the Centre québécois du droit de l’environnement, or CQDE — said the widespread opposition is explained by “the way the government allowed the project to go ahead without respecting the laws that we as a society put in place.”

His group sought a court injunction to protect wetlands and stop clear-cutting on the 171-hectare site, which straddles two communities about 30 kilometres east of Montreal. It lost that application but continues its legal fight to invalidate the environment minister’s approval of preparatory work at the site.

Asked whether it was paradoxical that an environmental group is fighting an electric battery factory, Bishai said the CQDE “has never criticized the Northvolt project.” Rather, his group is against the way the government pushed the factory forward “under conditions that are not democratic and sufficiently respectful of biodiversity and the population.” 

RELATED: Montreal Earth Day protesters criticize Northvolt, Quebec government

The CQDE is in court, he said, in part because the province failed to submit the project to public hearings, a process he said could have been completed in four months.

But Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette has said a full BAPE review would in fact have taken 18 months and led the Swedish company to look elsewhere. Before the project was announced, the government increased the threshold of battery production needed to trigger a review, raising it to 60,000 tonnes a year from 50,000. At a planned output of 56,000 tonnes a year, Northvolt is now exempt, but Economy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon has said the environmental regulations were not tailored to benefit the company. 

In February, Legault told reporters it made him “sad” to hear people criticize Northvolt, saying that “with this attitude” Quebec would have been unable to build its major hydroelectric projects. “If we listened to these people, nothing would change,” he said. “We would do nothing. So we really need to change this attitude in Quebec.”

For Lander, the factory, which is supposed to begin manufacturing electric battery cells and producing cathode active material by 2026, is controversial because it reflects a lack of consistency with the Legault government’s nationalist approach to governing.

In defence of Quebec’s autonomy, language and culture, Legault has limited immigration — against the wishes of the business sector. He has introduced a language reform that manufacturing companies say will force some of them from the Quebec market. And Legault has increased out-of-province university tuition as a way to reduce the number of English-speakers in downtown Montreal, despite the protests of Montreal’s mayor.

But this “Quebec first” approach hasn’t extended to the Northvolt project, for which a foreign company is taking over Quebec land and using its hydroelectricity without being submitted to public consultations, Lander said in a recent interview.

“It’s always been Quebec first at the expense of everything else, including the economy … to dump this (project) on Quebecers’ laps and say ‘fix yourselves,’ I think he needs to look in the mirror first,” he said.

Laurence Bherer, a political science professor at Université de Montréal, agrees there is a disconnect in Legault’s messaging, but she said Quebecers are far more concerned about his lack of consistency on the environment.

She said the BAPE “is an institution that really has a lot of legitimacy in Quebec.” Sidestepping the bureau creates mistrust, which extends to the government’s ecological vision, she added. 

The government is championing the Northvolt project as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and electrify the transportation network, but at the same time Legault is reviving a major highway project in the Quebec City region known as the third link.

“It’s as if the government’s environmental policy is based on technological innovation,” Bherer said. “Many people mistrust that. They think it’s a form of greenwashing: we invest in this factory but we relaunch the third link.”

Back at the Northvolt site, the explosives left under equipment were “rudimentary” and did not detonate, Paolo Cerruti, co-founder of the Swedish company, told reporters last week. 

“We are more determined than ever to go forward,” he said.

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