The battery bet

I have never opined in these pages on Northvolt, you will forgive me for arriving so late in the debate.

First, my point of view: I understand the bet that the Quebec government is making in trying to position itself in the ecosystem of manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles. It’s a sector full of promise.

I used the word “gamble” because it is one. Like any investment. A thousand things can stand in the way of the success of the battery bet.

I also understand that Northvolt has time constraints, that this factory must get off the ground quickly. I have no doubt that the Swedish giant was courted by others.

In short, you guessed it: I have a favorable bias for Northvolt. I understand the rush. But I find that this argument also begins to resemble a very convenient scarecrow to justify everything.

Quebec has available, affordable and clean energy. The site is very close to a transmission line, at a good relative distance from the lithium extraction sites. Do the other places where Northvolt could have set up have all these advantages?

Here’s what I don’t understand…

I don’t understand the secrecy. The godfather of the Northvolt project, Pierre Fitzgibbon, carries it with his usual atomic energy. Very good. Mr. Fitzgibbon also swore for weeks that Quebec’s rigorous environmental regulatory process was rigorously respected.

Already, a discreet regulatory change a few weeks before Northvolt’s announcement, a change which had the effect of removing the plant from the examination of the Bureau d’audiences publique sur l’environnement (BAPE), was… suspicious1.

But on Tuesday, the proverbial cat was out of the bag: the Minister of the Environment, Benoit Charette, admitted in an interview with The Press that, yes, he had maneuvered to shield Northvolt from a BAPE evaluation, because he feared that the project would escape Quebec2.

My environmentalist friends will not like the following sentence: I understand the government for having had this fear, that of losing the Swedish giant’s factory. I understand the government for choosing not to run the risk of “losing” Northvolt by putting the factory project on ice for almost two years.

But with his admission on Tuesday, Benoit Charette also recognizes that the government did not tell Quebecers the truth.

I don’t understand that, I don’t accept it. And if the government maneuvered – then hid having maneuvered – to shield Northvolt from a BAPE assessment, that casts serious doubt on the rest of the regulatory process of the Ministry of the Environment.

The government could have said as soon as it announced the arrival of Northvolt that it had put the battery factory on an ultra-rapid path aimed at avoiding a BAPE assessment and other regulatory hassles. He did not do it. He chose to pretend that the project had not benefited from accommodations… when it was false: accommodations were made for Northvolt.

The government could have chosen to incur a political cost by being transparent with Quebecers. But by pretending that Northvolt was subject to a rigorous environmental process, the government chose to pay a political price by not telling Quebecers the truth.

The most tragic? I think our fellow citizens understand that the battery bet can pay off financially and environmentally. I think that Quebecers understand that the battery sector is not the shale gas sector. I think they would have understood, if we had been transparent with them, the urgency for Northvolt.

We must also ask ourselves: must a BAPE evaluation necessarily, at a minimum, take 18 months? And up to two years?

Mind you, 18 to 24 months to conduct environmental consultations is a very, very long time, but when you think about it, it’s very much in line with so many things in this province…

Quebec: where it takes 10 years to build a hospital, years and years to implement the recommendations of a commission of inquiry into child abuse, and where you sometimes end up being assigned a family doctor even though you you’re already dead.

1. Read the article “7 billion mega-factory: the Northvolt project protected from BAPE”

2. Read the article “Northvolt mega-factory: “We wouldn’t have had a project” with a BAPE, says Benoit Charette”


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