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Que. minister admits Northvolt wouldn't be built if it required an environmental assessment; opposition irate

Security guards the entrance to the construction site of the new EV battery plant, Northvolt, in Saint-Basile-le-Grand, east of Montreal, Quebec, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. The Swedish multinational announced Thursday that work had been temporarily suspended on the site in McMasterville and Saint-Basile-le-Grand “out of respect for the ongoing legal process.” (Christinne Muschi, The Canadian Press) Security guards the entrance to the construction site of the new EV battery plant, Northvolt, in Saint-Basile-le-Grand, east of Montreal, Quebec, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. The Swedish multinational announced Thursday that work had been temporarily suspended on the site in McMasterville and Saint-Basile-le-Grand “out of respect for the ongoing legal process.” (Christinne Muschi, The Canadian Press)
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The opposition parties in Quebec City are criticizing Environment Minister Benoit Charette, who told La Presse on Tuesday that the Northvolt battery plant would not have been built if the company had had to submit to a BAPE (environmental assessment).

Quebec Solidaire (QS) MNA Haroun Bouazzi condemned what he saw as "a wholesale destruction of the battery industry's social acceptability through actions such as these."

Bouazzi believes that there is still time to set up a BAPE and says that this would not necessarily mean that Northvolt would leave Quebec. At the same time, he maintains that an accelerated process would be possible.

In an interview with La Presse on Tuesday, the environment minister said that a BAPE would have delayed the battery plant project too long, which would have compromised its completion. According to Charette, it was imperative to act quickly if the government was to achieve its GHG reduction targets.

Quebec is aiming to reduce its emissions by 37.5 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030.

"The CAQ has become the project's worst ally"

Liberal MNA Virginie Dufour welcomed the fact that the minister has "finally shown some transparency" but maintains that "the social acceptability of the project continues to decline and this is due to the CAQ's lack of transparency."

"The CAQ has become the project's worst ally at the moment," she said.

According to the MNA, there are still too many grey areas in this dossier and she is therefore calling for an "urgent meeting" with minister Charette: "If we could have a meeting to clear up the doubts so that we can all row in the same direction for this project," she said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"Manufacturing development cheerleaders"

According to PQ MNA Joël Arseneau, the minister "admits that he has been misleading Quebecers for weeks about the change in the rules. He admits that Northvolt obtained all the privileges it wanted.

"By his statements, the Minister is proving that he is reneging on his responsibilities to protect the environment, ensure the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity and play a key role in the climate transition, in a sustainable perspective, in order to play cheerleader for manufacturing development," he said in a written statement sent to The Canadian Press.

Charette defended himself on X Wednesday morning.

"I will continue to repeat that Quebec has one of the most rigorous environmental assessment frameworks in North America. The absence of a BAPE for the first phase of the Northvolt project in no way precludes the company's compliance with standards," he wrote.

Tight schedule

In a written statement, Northvolt said that "since the beginning of discussions with the governments of Quebec and Canada, we have been transparent and clear about the project's tight schedule and the conditions for success linked to our establishment in Quebec."

"We are operating in a context where the ability to deliver projects on time is an essential condition for success, and where global competition is fierce, with China and the United States providing massive subsidies for projects like ours," said company spokesperson Laurent Therrien.

The controversy surrounding Northvolt's proposed plant continues to grow. In September 2023, Radio-Canada revealed that Quebec had raised the minimum cathode manufacturing threshold for a BAPE review from 50,000 to 60,000 tonnes.

The Northvolt plant is expected to produce 56,000 tonnes.

"We have not taken any steps to change the thresholds already in the regulations. The article concerning cathode active material, which now sets the threshold at 60,000 tonnes, was the subject of a pre-consultation in December 2022, in which Northvolt did not participate," said Therrien.

Phase three of Northvolt's project -- a battery recycling plant -- will be subject to a BAPE review.

What is BAPE?

"The BAPE's mission is to inform government decision-making by transmitting to the minister responsible for the environment findings and opinions that take into account the concerns of the public and are based on the 16 principles of the Sustainable Development Act," reads the organization's website.

The BAPE does not have the power to authorize or refuse a project; it is the government that makes the final decision. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on March 6, 2024. 

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