A federal minister has given the clearest indication yet that Ottawa will bankroll a potentially transformative hydro expansion project in the Northwest Territories.
On Wednesday, the federal and territorial governments announced a small $1.2-million funding package to start work on the Taltson hydro expansion.
Dominic LeBlanc, the minister for northern affairs, later made clear he believes this is the first, small step in a much larger, longer-term commitment.
“Our commitment is … to make sure we can complete this project and do so in the right way,” LeBlanc said at a news conference inside the NWT’s legislature.
“We don’t have final decisions and timelines, other than to say for our government it is a very big priority.”
LeBlanc went on to say he hopes, in three years’ time, Ottawa and the NWT will be in a position to unlock the hundreds of millions of dollars required to make all three phases of the Taltson expansion happen.
‘Spring feels right’
The Taltson hydro system, north of Fort Smith, currently powers only the South Slave.
The NWT government wants to connect an enhanced Taltson system to the North Slave, use it to help power diamond mines, and connect the whole grid to the south for the first time.
Doing so would bring cheaper power rates to residents and cheap, clean power for mining, driving economic investment, the territory argues – while also helping the NWT meet its emissions reduction goals.
“This is a very narrow, precise commitment,” said LeBlanc, referring to Wednesday’s $1.2-million announcement.
“The reason we’re doing this is there was an opportunity to do some of this work in the next few months. When we get to the spring, we’ll need to continue this exercise and I hope it’s something we can work on together in the future.
“The spring feels like the right time to be able to continue this work, but those decisions haven’t been finalized.”
‘This will go a long way’
It is hard to overestimate the impact the Taltson expansion could have on the Northwest Territories.
Likely to cost more than $1 billion – 75 percent of which the NWT hopes Ottawa will fund – the expansion is all but guaranteed to significantly reduce power rates for many residents.
Rates four times higher, or more, than those down south are a major complaint among residents of the territory.
In addition, said NWT Premier Bob McLeod, Wednesday’s initial funding “will go a long way with the business case [for the project] and resurrecting a lot of the previous work that was done, to put us in a more current position.”
Taltson as a project has been sporadically explored for many years without, until now, any real sign of progress or the money to get the job done.
“We’re hoping this money will allow us to sit down, dust off the previous information, and do further work on looking at new technology and working on the business case involving our Aboriginal government partners,” said McLeod.
He hopes to have a second, much larger tranche of cash signed off “before the next election,” he added. The next federal and territorial elections are both scheduled for October 2019.
LeBlanc stopped short of firmly guaranteeing all the required money for Taltson to be completed when directly asked if “Ottawa will pay for it.”
But he did acknowledge the importance of the project to the territory.
“This project is very much part of a national discussion I think Canadians want their government to have, about how we can have better, more equitable access to clean, green electricity, at equitable rates,” he said.