What good is a wonder of nature if you can’t export it?

RALPH SURETTE August 1 1975


What good is a wonder of nature if you can’t export it?

RALPH SURETTE August 1 1975


What good is a wonder of nature if you can’t export it?


Twice a day the violent waters of the Bay of Fundy reach out like some frenzied lover to touch the heart of the land. Bays, basins, estuaries, saults, arms and fingers of water flow backward, upward, sourcing in the unknown core of the Atlantic Ocean, speeding around the steep peninsular curve of Nova Scotia and smashing up to 53 feet above lowtide level — the most dramatic example anywhere of the moon’s influence on terrestrial affairs.

This awesome display is the kind of stuff that moves the human spirit. If Nova Scotia were California there would surely be a cult of lunar worship on the many Fundían capes and promontories which, with mysterious precision, are assaulted every 12 hours and 25 minutes by brute water.

But one person’s inspiration is often another’s raw material. The British financier. Edmund de Rothschild, for example, is not so much enthralled by the mystical forces as by the 13,000 or so megawatts of electrical power it is estimated they could generate — most of which he hopes to deliver to the United States, specifically to his old friends the Rockefellers who are involved with much of the northeastern U.S. electricity system and who are the intended recipients of electricity from his last Canadian venture, the Churchill Falls development in Labrador.

As for what’s left of the spiritual vision, Rothschild reserves that for Maritimers who (he says) should look upon tidal power development as a marvelous opportunity to make up for the rest of the world’s ingratitude toward the Americans. “There is little gratitude in man,” he complained to the Halifax Board of Trade last year. “The Americans saved Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II. They helped to rebuild the economies of Germany and Japan and they have had very little thanks for this. You now in Canada have a chance to help the United States of America. Their energy problem is something that does need some understanding. This is where I believe you in the Maritimes can benefit not only America but yourselves. It is by the export of power.”

In almost any other part of Canada Rothschild’s remarks would have been shredded by editorial writers and skewered by politicians. For the better part of the last decade, the export of energy to the United States has been a contentious issue in this country, but in the Maritimes neither the media nor the politicians are raising a whimper of protest over Rothschild’s plan. The Maritimes wants a Fundy tidal power project, and that’s that. Bob Howie, the Tory MP from New Brunswick, summed it up for just about every Maritimes politician and businessman earlier this year when he told a Commons committee: “Fundy power can do for the East what the tar sands can do for the West.” Fundy power, he thinks — they all think — can turn the Maritimes into another Alberta.

A few years ago any talk of harnessing Fundy power would have been taken with a grain of sea salt, because everybody knew there was no way the federal government was going to get involved in such a harebrained scheme. It was treated in Ottawa as just another east coast joke, part of the ceaseless cacophony of wacky development ideas expected from Maritimes politicians.

Ralph Surette is a Halifax free-lance writer and an editor of The 4th Estate.

But now Ottawa is becoming increasingly interested. For one thing, in the six years since a study found tapping the tides unfeasible economically, the price per barrel of crude oil has quintupled to more than $10; a more recent assessment of Fundy, published in December, suggests tidal power would be no more costly than thermal power (maybe even cheaper, if the world price of oil stays the same) after 1980.

Last December, Energy Minister Donald Macdonald said: “Tidal power may be closer than we had thought.” A new, •three-million-dollar feasibility study was ordered. Harnessing Fundy became a serious possibility.

The appeal of the project is understandable. If Fundy power can be developed anywhere near that 13,000 megawatts potential predicted even in the 1969 assessment, it would become one of the the largest single sources of electricity in the world. (James Bay is designed for 10,340 megawatts, and the largest nuclear complexes such as the one at Pickering, Ontario, produce a mere 2,000 megawatts.)

So it sounds good. But there is another, disturbing side to harnessing Fundy. The terms of the new study, due to begin within a year, demand that it self-destruct the moment it determines that the odds against success are insurmountable. Developing tidal power would have to be weighed in terms of export markets, transmission facilities, the possibility of dealing with the fluctuating intensity of the tide itself and environmental damage. If it came up short anywhere the project would be dropped.

It would be comforting to be able to believe in the scientific objectivity of the study, but as in all super-projects of this kind, the people doing it — the engineering firms — have more than a passing interest in seeing the project go ahead. What questions will they choose to ask in order to not jeopardize contracts? What hazards will they seek to minimize to facilitate a political decision to go ahead?

The politicians, led by Premier Gerald Regan of Nova Scotia, cannot be expected to probe these motivations too deeply. After all, for them Fundy means prestige and economic prosperity (despite the experience of the Columbia River project where almost all the longterm jobs were created south of the border with cheap BC power) and the prospect of jobs for their people. In terms of political propaganda, especially in the Maritimes, the employment argument will be almost overwhelming. The fact that it will mean maybe 3,000 or 4,000 jobs, mostly unskilled (the high-salary boys will be imported, as usual) for a couple of years at most will be ignored for instant gratification.

Once the impetus for harnessing Fundy is achieved it will become almost impossible to turn back. As in all superprojects of this kind, there are three lines of force converging and agitating to create Fundy tidal ppwer: the politicians; the financial side, represented by Rothschild, possibly in conjunction with the Rockefellers’ Chase Manhattan Bank (no cost estimate is really meaningful at this point: we can assume it will be in the billions); and the technological side, primarily the engineering firms that see both money and challenge in a venture like this.

This third group, largely unseen, speaking softly and in technical jargon, often provides an influence that is only guessed at in the building of superdams: for it defines the assumptions on which political decisions to go ahead with such projects are made. This is particularly true where new concepts are being pioneered, as in tidal power. What the engineers think — or, just as significantly, what they choose to ignore — could be of pivotal importance.

Here is a sample of their thinking at present. Since the tides, which run on a lunar cycle, do not peak at the same time as human activity (which runs on a solar cycle) any advanced tidal power scheme would have a problem in “retiming” the off-demand power. What to do? One proposal is to wash out the salt deposits of the Bay of Fundy’s shores and fill them with compressed air from excess off-peak power, then convert that air to electricity again when demand rises by way of a new combustion scheme being developed in Europe. This done, according to K. E. Sorensen, executive vice-president of Harza Engineering of Chicago, “it would be possible to expand the energy capacity of the Fundy scheme either by an additional tidal development or by construction of nuclear plants in the tidal basin.” There could also be 200,000-ton caissons complete with turbines and generators simply floated out and sunk in place, bypassing the need for conventional dam construction, and high-voltage gas-filled cables — developed in Europe — to transmit all that megawattage.

The international tidal power fraternity is not large, but it is active. Heading it is a group called Tidal Power Consultants Limited, with offices in Montreal’s Place Bonaventure. It consists of four companies: Montreal Engineering Company Limited. Harza Engineering. The Shawinigan Engineering Company Limited, and the British firm. Engineering and Power Development Consultants. During the Fundy study of the late Sixties, Tidal Power Consultants thrived, its offices hummed with people and activity. After that study terminated in 1969, the group did some work for Rothschild, but generally fell idle.

This does not mean that the technological side of tidal power promotion has been inactive during that time. TPC president George Eckenfelder does not like the word “lobbying” but says his group has been having “professional technical discussions” with the federal, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick governments. Eckenfelder’s hope is that his offices will soon buzz with activity again. The aim of the companies represented by Tidal Power Consultants, he said, is to participate both in the upcoming studies and then again in the construction phase itself.

Other companies such as Acres Ltd. of Toronto, which participated in Churchill Falls in a big way, and Foundation Engineering of Vancouver are also interested. Plus a host of smaller companies and contractors. Representatives of virtually the entire fraternity made an appearance at a world scale conference on oceanography, called Ocean 74, in Halifax a year ago, arguing that without a doubt tidal power’s time has come. Arguments about whether tidal power is competitive with oil or nuclear power, they said, must give way to a more sophisticated picture in which tidal power is integrated with these other forms, particularly as they exist in the northeastern U.S.

It was clear from the documents that emerged from that conference, as well as from conversations I have had with the various interests involved in tidal power, that the engineers in their enthusiasm show an ominous propensity to concentrate on the problems they see as technologically soluble and interesting, such as the re-timing question, and much less on the problems that may be insoluble.

The first of these problems involves the behavior of the tides themselves. Since the prime condition for the magnitude of the tides is the shape of the bay, how will the tides be affected when dams change that shape? The best oceanographers can do is say that maybe the tides will diminish — or maybe they will increase. Most admit no amount of research will give a sure answer.

One fear is that placing dams at the point of peak force of the tides will push that point of peak force back out toward the sea. “It would be a costly mistake to build the system only to find that the presence of the dams diminished the tidal wave to the point where the energy return no longer justified the investment,” says a recent paper on the subject by the National Research Council. Another theory says the tides would rise even higher, and increase tidal height as far down the coast as Boston.

Dr. C. J. R. Garrett of the Dalhousie University department of oceanography believes there is no way the effect of dams on the immensely complicated behavior of the tides can ever be accurately predicted. Ultimately, predictions will have to rest on faith in model mockups and computer simulations.

The tidal power promoters do acknowledge the problem of tidal behavior, although they don’t see it as an obstacle. But there is a related problem of potentially grave proportions that was not mentioned at all at that Ocean 74 conference, and is rarely mentioned above a whisper elsewhere. The problem is mud.

The movements of sediments in the damsite areas are as violent as the tides themselves, and their possible effects on turbines and the silting up of reservoirs have been little more than guessed at. There have been a few eye-opening insights into the potential of the muds on a small scale, however. In 1969, a small causeway was built across the Petitcodiac river at Moncton. Since then mud has backed up and confined the channel far downriver with the effect that the famous Tidal Bore, which used to peak at Moncton, now peaks three or four miles downriver, and sedimentation is still taking place.

Or consider what happened at Windsor, NS, in 1973, after a causeway was built across the Avon river estuary. Instead of sediment building up along the causeway, as predicted by the experts, the tides scoured the causeway area clean, creating fears of erosion, and deposited more than 30 feet of sediment away from the causeway toward the middle of the estuary. Federal government geologists linked to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, who started looking at the sediment problem in relation to the project when it became obvious no one else was going to, point out that the sediment tends to gather behind obstacles — shoals, headlands, capes, and so on.

And, as seems likely, behind tidal dams.

There is also ecology. The Bay of Fundy has barely been explored, even by environmentalists. But biologists at Acadia University at Wolfville, NS, believe the bay. and particularly Minas Basin (which is the likeliest site for the first dam), may be the key link in the migratory chain on the eastern part of the Western Hemisphere for millions of birds traveling yearly from the Arctic Ocean to Latin America. A former undergraduate, John Kearney, doing a study on shore birds, in one day estimated 28,000 semi-palmated sandpipers on a one-mile stretch of Evangeline Beach. That’s only one of a dozen kinds of sandpipers that migrate through, and sandpipers in turn are only one of dozens of species of shore birds. All these birds feed on the vast mud and sand flats that are exposed at low tide and that the swirling waters keep replenished with nutrients. Kearney says some birds double their weight in fat in a short stay of a few days in the basin. The possibility of those flats disappearing behind tidal dams could thus have farreaching effects on bird life.

Sherman Blakeney, a biologist at Acadia, sees Fundy power as a project promoted by “engineers on the rampage,” for whom the only justification is that “if it can be done then it should be done.”

But apart from these questions, there is the possibility of other major problems which have not even been imagined. Who would have thought, for instance, that the reservoir of the Aswan High Dam might never fill because no one figured on the evaporation rate and the porosity of the sub-desert rock structure? Or that it would cost as much as the dam is worth within a few years just for fertilizers to replace the lost silt in the flatlands below this dam? Or that Pakistan’s Mangla Dam would cause such an increase in the salinity of the earth that an irrigation project almost as costly as the dam itself would have to be instituted to save a large portion of the country’s agriculture? Wouldn’t an engineer have laughed at the suggestion that pink waterweed would proliferate in the stilled waters to the point of causing costly evaporation and clogging turbines at Thailand’s Ubolratana Dam, Zambia’s Kariba, the Ivory Coast’s Kossou, Ghana’s Akosombo — all built with the know-how of foreign engineers?

There is no precedent for Fundy tidal power. Its promoters talk endlessly of the glories of the tidal project in La Ranee, France, as the image of what Fundy would be. La Ranee is indeed a quiet little dam of a couple of hundred megawatts that has not disturbed the countryside very much. But like a Russian project at Kislaya Guba on the Barents Sea north of Murmansk, it is a mere prototype which has about as much relation to Fundy as a dory has to a supertanker.

The first cousins of Fundy power are rather those super-dams of the Third World that were supposed to bring prosperity but didn’t. And if there is a cult growing around the tides of Fundy, it is the cult of gigantism itself in which sheer size is seen as being able to overwhelm any possible objection.

Why, for example, couldn’t the many inlets of Fundy be developed for small capacity power production to serve only the Maritimes’ energy needs? Although some small prototype dams are being considered, the engineers don’t want small capacity development, the politicians and the financiers don’t want it. They all want the whole thing. An eightmile dam across the Minas Basin to start with and the rest later.

Decisions to go ahead with superprojects of unforeseen consequence are generally taken away from the public eye. and long before the public is aware of what is happening. In fact the financial, technological and political momentum often becomes irreversible long before a formal decision is even made. Studies ostensibly aimed at giving an “objective” and “scientific” assessment of such projects generally only add to the momentum.

Since no significant opposition is likely to materialize in the Maritimes itself, the questioning of this momentum will have to originate largely in central Canada. This will be denounced as typical Upper Canadian heavy-handedness by the Fundy promoters — indeed even as a Toronto plot to deny Maritimers a share of prosperity — but the “prosperity” that such projects bring rarely lives up to the Chamber of Commerce hype. And a project of this magnitude, especially one designed primarily for energy export, cannot but have implications for all Canadians.