James Bay Project

From Academic Kids

The James Bay Project is the construction of a massive hydroelectric generation system in northwestern Quebec, Canada. It is located east of James Bay, north of the St. Lawrence Lowlands, south of Nunavik and west of Labrador. It covers an area larger than New York, and is one of the largest hydroelectric systems in the World. To date, it has cost over 20 billion dollars to construct, but generates three times more electricity than Niagara Falls.



Early as 1950, the Quebec provincial government investigated the energy potential of torrential rivers flowing through its sparsely populated north. Until the late 1960s, development interest was limited. While the cost alone was discouraging, politics also delayed realization of the project. Not until the election of Premier Robert Bourassa, a noted technocrat, did the James Bay Project begin construction. A successor to the Lesage Liberal legacy, Bourassa felt the extensive hydro-electric resources of his province were the most effective means of completing the modernization of Quebec. The Quebec North represented almost unlimited energy resources, whose inexpensive surplus power would attract business and subsidize unmatched social services in perpetuity.

On April 30, 1971, Bourassa unveiled his government's plans. Several northern rivers, flowing into eastern James Bay, would be diverted to double the power capacity of their watershed. Responsibility for the project would be overseen by La Société d'énergie Baie James, a newly-created government entity. The tender for the herculean engineering feat would go to Bechtel Corporation, the same firm responsible for much of Boston's Big Dig. It was dubbed Complexe La Grande after La Grande Rivière (the Great river), the main river involved.It comprised the first of many hydroelectric projects Quebec had planned for its north.

An eager Société began construction of access roads only two months later, well in advance of requisite environmental assessments. In many places, not even seasonal roads existed to transport materials and personnel to the extreme north location. At this time, opposition to the project became vocal. Aborginal residents of the affected area, members of the Cree Nation, began organizing with environmental groups in protest. They believed the provincial government was in violation of numerous treaties, committing the wanton expropriation and destruction of their land. In 1975, acting on behalf of the government's interests, Hydro Quebec signed the Northern Quebec Agreement with the Cree, acceding millions of dollars in compensation in return for the great swaths of land necessary to see the project to fruition.

The project continued unabated until 1985, when Complexe La Grande was nearly completed. It was now generating over 10,000 MW of electricity, enough at the time to meet the energy demands of New York City. Over 203 million cubic yards (155,000,000 m³) of fill, 138,000 tons of steel, 550,000 tons of cement, and nearly 70,000 tons of explosives were used in construction. Concurrent employment by the project reached 18,000. Of the 215 dikes and dams, many surpassed the height of skyscrapers, with one reaching 56 stories. The terraced diversion channel at Robert Bourassa Generating Station was carved one hundred feet (30 m) deep into the side of a mountain. Water tumbles from the reservoir to the river below at a height greater than that of Niagara Falls. A 3,000 mile (4,800 km) network of transmission lines was necessary to bring generated power to consumers. Interestingly this network contains 750 kilovolt AC and +-450 kilovolt DC lines.

With the completion of James Bay I, Hydro Quebec announced the development of Phase II, intended to double capacity. Opposition amongst the Cree was even more vocal this time than last. The Cree had experienced a massive culture shock with the introduction of permanent transportation routes to the south. The diversion of rivers destroyed the ecosystem responsible for the Cree livelihood, making employment with the project a necessity. Poverty and alcoholism were rampant. While highly motivated, their protest was mainly ineffective until 1992. La Grande Phase II was nearly complete with the La Grande 2A station already in commission when the state of New York withdrew from a multi-billion dollar power purchasing agreement. Suddenly, Hydro Quebec was open to negotiations, and suspended construction altogether.

Throughout the mid-1990s, construction was slowed, though overall generating capacity was increased to nearly 15,000 MW. By 1997, the provincial government had opened the sale of its electricity to the entire North American market, pressing Hydro Quebec to expand its generating capacity. A 2002 landmark agreement between Hydro Quebec and the Cree finally assured the completion of Phase II. A subsequent agreement of April 2004 put an end to all litigation between the two parties, giving carte blanche for all further hydro development, and an annual stipend for the Cree.

Environmental controversy

The James Bay Project altered an area larger than the state of New York. Some rivers were completely destroyed, while others, like the Eastmain, had their flows reduced by 90%. Millions of acres of forest were incinerated. A total of 286,000,000 cubic metres of earth and rock were excavated, and a volume of water half the size of Lake Ontario now floods Northern Quebec. Rotting material on the bottom of artificial lakes has poisoned the watershed with organic mercury. Access roads now open the possibility of urban invasion, resource exploration and logging. During the initial flooding stage, historic caribou migration routes were affected, however the animals continued to attempt to swim along these areas, resulting in the deaths of over 10,000 from a herd of 400,000 in 1984.

While these statistics appear devastating, there is conflict within the environmentalist community over the impact of James Bay. While La Complexe Grande has disrupted an ecosystem, it has given the opportunity for thousands of megawatts of electricity to be generated pollution-free.


The cost of The James Bay Project was immense, but the benefit to Quebec was immeasurable. Many feel that without the hydro project, Quebec could not have remained prosperous throughout the latter twentieth century.

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