March 4, 2024

When the Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt announced plans to build a multibillion-dollar ‘gigafactory’ in Quebec, the proposal was heralded as a win for Canada’s ambitions to become a global green energy powerhouse – and lauded as an environmentally sensitive project which would minimize harmful emissions.

Four months later, however, protestors are describing the sprawling plant an “ecocidal disgrace”, and driving steel bars and nails into trees, to prevent the company from clearcutting forests and destroying wetlands ahead of construction.

With nearly half of global emissions from automobiles, the European battery giant says plants like its future Northvolt Six facility, which it claims has a low carbon footprint and on-site materials recycling, are critical in the multi-national effort to electrify vehicles.

But a dispute around the plant, in a forested enclave near Montreal, has pitted environmentalists and First Nations against the company over fears construction will destroy 170 hectares of wetlands and woodlands, killing or displacing at-risk species.

“This site contains areas of high ecological value – so much so that a previous housing project on the same site was refused by the minister of environment less than a year ago,” said Marc Bishai, a lawyer with the Quebec Environmental Law Center. “And according to the ministry’s own experts, the wetlands on this site are among the last in the region and provide precious ecological functions and habitat for at-risk species.”

Last week, Bishai and his colleagues went to court, arguing permits to cut down trees were issued improperly and the province should have acted to protect environmentally important ecosystems from destruction. But a judge sided with the company, which has promised to plant 24,000 trees to replace the 8,730 trees it plans to cut down.

“This approach, which consists of destroying now and protecting later, without knowing precisely where, when, or how, is in no way reassuring in the context of the biodiversity loss crisis,” the law centre said in a statement following the judge’s decision. “We won’t declare defeat.”

An aerial view of the construction site of Northvolt’s plant, east of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock

Bishai says recent change to the province’s environmental regulations, made shortly before the Northvolt plant was announced, means the site – which Northvolt says measures 1,000 hockey rinks in size (170 hectares) – doesn’t reach the size threshold to trigger an independent environmental review. Prior to the changes to the regulation, however, Bishai says it would have trigged a review.

“The government so far has denied that it was that this change was bespoke for this company,” he said. “But it undermines public confidence when a change like this is done so close to the announcement of a project, which has signifiant government financial support and is moving so quickly.”

He said neither the company nor the government has shown an interest in halting the project and entering into a voluntary review process.

Separately the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke has announced that it is filing a lawsuit, alleging that the Quebec and Canadian governments failed in their obligation to adequately consult both the public and Indigenous communities before approving the plant.

“The [Northvolt] site contains some of the highest quality wetlands in the region,” the council said in a statement, arguing that the laws that govern work in wetlands fail to “consider, let alone respect, Indigenous rights”.

For some activists, however, the courts are too slow a venue:last week, an anonymous group claimed responsibility for driving steel bars and nails into the trunks of at least 100 trees in an attempt to damage logging equipment and sabotage construction. The group said they had identified the trees with spray paint.

Protesters outside a hotel before a speech by Paolo Cerruti, co-founder and chief operating officer of Northvolt, at the Montreal Chamber of Commerce in Quebec, Canada, on 28 November 2023. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

“To stop Northvolt, we need to multiply our tactics and hit where it hurts: causing economic risk and uncertainty … We gave the forest weapons to defend itself!” the group wrote on the Montreal Counter Information website, a self-described anarchist forum.

The group called for “broad mobilization” against the plant and criticized the Quebec government for spending billions to perpetuate “car culture” instead of investing in other low-carbon transportation alternatives.

“We must attack this destructive machine for crushing life by targeting its weak points. Let’s sabotage the equipment, block the construction sites and harass the industry’s elected representatives. The environmental movement must redouble its efforts.”

A Northvolt spokesperson confirmed to the Canadian Press the trees were spiked, and warned the protest carried “significant risks for the safety of workers and surrounding communities”. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Canada’s federal innovation minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called the sabotage “completely unacceptable”.

“In a free and democratic society, people have the right to express themselves … if people have objections to make, there are other ways to do it.”

Champagne called the battery plant, the largest private investment in Quebec’s history a “generational opportunity” and that the company is conscious of the environment.

But Bishai says with governments working at “breakneck speed” to approve similar projects, more discussion and transparency is needed.

“These big issues and questions are exactly what an independent environmental assessment is designed to grapple with. It’s designed to have people understand the project and its impacts not only locally, but also more broadly, on the society, on the economy, on the environment,” he said, adding that with more rigorous review, projects often leave with better social license and increased public support. “What we’re asking for – what many people are asking for, is to finally have the social debate about these issues.”

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