In a subarctic fjard estuary just a few miles from frozen tundra, Inuit hunter Karl Michelin says he owes his life to the thousands of barking ringed seals that congregate year-round in local waters.
The seals’ jet-black, heavily fatted meat is a staple for Michelin, his wife, and their toddler. With food insecurity rampant among the region’s Inuit, neighbors are similarly dependent on seals and other wild-caught food. The town’s isolation makes regular employment opportunities scarce, and food prohibitively expensive to import.
But Michelin says his ability to harvest seals is facing a threat from an unexpected quarter: America’s hunger for cheap and renewable electricity.
“In order for you to get that kind of power,” he said, “we have to sacrifice our way of life in a lot of ways.”
Canada’s indigenous leaders say an unprecedented push for clean energy in the United States is inadvertently causing long-term environmental damage to the traditional hunting grounds on their public lands.
Rigolet lies downstream of Muskrat Falls, a $12.7bn dam on the Churchill River, a key drainage point for Labrador’s biggest watershed. Nalcor, the state-owned company that completed Muskrat Falls last year, is already planning Gull Island, another Churchill dam that would produce three times as much electricity, mostly for export to the US.
The Nunatsiavut government, which governs 2,700 Inuit in the area, says those dams will disrupt the hydrologic cycle underpinning the ecosystem, and increase exposure to a toxin associated with dam reservoirs.
When land is flooded, naturally occurring mercury is unlocked from the soil and vegetation and released into the water column, where it is taken up by bacteria and transformed into methylmercury, a neurotoxin that makes its way up the food chain and bioaccumulates in fish, waterbirds and seals.
Those species are critical to the sustainable lifestyle practiced by the Inuit.
“When they poison the water, they poison us,” said conservation officer, David Wolfrey, who ensures that Rigolet’s 310 residents observe hunting and fishing limits on fish, caribou, moose and polar bear.
The Nunatsiavut’s issues are common among Canada’s First Nations – a 2016 survey of 22 planned future hydropower projects in Canada found that all 22 were within 60 miles of at least one indigenous community.
The Inuit of Labrador already have higher concentrations of methylmercury in their bodies than non-indigenous Canadians, but there is sharp disagreement over the extent to which large dams are further elevating those levels, with each side citing conflicting research.
“The methylmercury is going to come down the river and into our food chain and the fish and the seals won’t be fit to eat,” said Wolfrey. “My grandchildren, they’re not going to be able to live the life that I lived, and my grandparents lived.”
Over the past four years, a slew of US states have unveiled ambitious renewable energy goals: Maine has mandated 80% renewable energy production in Maine, 90% in Vermont, and 100% in Minnesota, California, New York, Washington and Rhode Island. Because those states lack a clear path to meet these goals through local generation, lawmakers are eyeing the reserves of renewable power across the northern border.
Though it has just 37 million people, Canada lags only China among the world’s hydropower superpowers, according to WaterPower Canada, an industry association. With 900 large-scale dams, big hydro already supplies 60% of Canada’s domestic needs.
In the coming years, the industry sees $100bn in expected investments and a potential tripling of output, largely by damming the nation’s last remaining wild rivers.
Potential markets include New York City, where Mayor Bill De Blasio is aggressively pursuing a $3bn transmission line, and Maine, which is considering a $950m transmission line that cuts across its storied north woods.
Supporters say this infrastructure is needed to combat climate change. But while hydropower is certainly renewable, experts such as the US Environmental Protection Agency do not consider it “green”. Opponents point to the energy costs of construction, and the impact of the methane and carbon released by vegetation that rots in flooded reservoirs.
The debate is being played out in Maine, where a citizen referendum challenging the proposed transmission line will be on the ballot this November.
Sean Mahoney, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine advocacy center, acknowledges that large scale hydro is flawed, but said it’s the best readily available opportunity.
“Look at the project, look at what it does, as far as making an impact on the climate crisis,” said Mahoney. “Hydropower is, by the most conservative estimate, 70% of the emissions of the natural gas it will replace. That is an impact of scale and if we’re really serious about the climate crisis, we have to look at the project that delivers at that scale.”
But Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said importing large-scale hydro is a poor solution to meeting local renewable energy goals.
“The question is, should we put our time and energy into that, or into developing renewable energy projects in Maine and New England where we get more economic benefits from it?”
Both Mahoney and Voorhees agreed that the Canadian hydropower industry’s patchy relationship with First Nations groups will impact American enthusiasm for imports.
That fact, and concerns expressed by groups like the United Nations and Amnesty International, have the hydropower industry looking for ways to make their projects more palatable to both local indigenous groups, and the international community.
In recent years, Nalcor and other dam-builders have aggressively courted support from local aboriginal populations – in addition to staffing internal indigenous relations departments, their projects now typically include agreements to fund local community initiatives and, in some cases, full partnerships that have resulted in lucrative payouts to the affected communities.
But those efforts are unlikely to convince Inuit like Alex Saunders, 78, of Labrador’s Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Saunders has been treated for methylmercury poisoning he associates with his heavy dependence on ocean fish and local wildlife. Saunders wishes Americans wouldn’t support large scale hydropower.
“Think about what you’re buying here,” he said. “You’re buying the misery from the local people of northern Canada. That’s not a good thing.”