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Well, this sounds familiar. Environmentalists are calling for U.S. President Barack Obama to deny a permit to a cross-border infrastructure project aimed at importing "dirty" energy from Canada.

This time, however, the target of environmentalist ire is not Alberta oil but hydroelectricity from Quebec, the very power source Premier Philippe Couillard insists is the key to "rebranding" Canada as a clean energy superpower that looks more like Norway than Saudi Arabia.

The Sierra Club of New Hampshire begs to differ. The conservationist group is one of a growing list of opponents dead set against a proposed $1.6-billion (U.S.) transmission line that would carry hydro power from Quebec through New Hampshire, mostly to consumers in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

They say that branding Quebec power as "clean" amounts to greenwashing.

The 1,090-megawatt Northern Pass transmission line that New England utility Eversource Energy wants to build is the most advanced of several infrastructure projects that would vastly increase the quantity of power Hydro-Québec could export to the United States. But Mr. Couillard, who has been ambivalent toward TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East oil pipeline given opposition among Quebec environmentalists, now has to counter "dirty" energy charges of his own.

"Why are we allowing [Eversource] to slice our state in half for an unnecessary transmission superhighway carrying dirty power from a foreign country through our state?" Sierra Club of New Hampshire chairman Jerry Curran and state director Catherine Corkery wrote last month.

The "dirty" label comes from the carbon released in the flooding of vast swaths of boreal forest to build new hydro dams, such as the 1,550 MW Romaine River project now nearing completion, and ongoing disputes with the Innu First Nations whose territories are most affected by the project. Hydro-Québec "strongly objects" to the Sierra Club's characterization of its power.

The Quebec utility maintains that over a 100-year life cycle – the normal lifespan of a large hydroelectricity project – the amount of greenhouse gases generated is comparable to wind power and five times less than the quantity generated by a solar project, whose panels would need to be replaced several times over. The industrial processes and mining of rare earth metals used in making photovoltaic panels remains a little-mentioned black spot on solar's sunny image.

Still, Mr. Couillard has encountered a chilly reception on recent road shows in New England. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is a strong advocate of importing hydro power from Quebec to meet the state's targets for reducing greenhouse gases. But utilities that serve the region argue that a Baker-backed bill now before the state Senate, which would smooth the way for long-term contracts for up to 2,400 MW of Canadian hydro power, would drive up electricity rates and undermine local renewable power projects.

The chief executives of six major U.S. utilities have called the Senate bill a government "intrusion into the competitive electricity market" that would increase power costs by $777-million (U.S.) above market rates every year, or almost $20-billion over the life of the contracts.

The biggest obstacle to the realization of Mr. Couillard's grand plan to increase Quebec's hydro exports, however, remains opposition to Northern Pass. The project is to New Hampshire what the Keystone XL pipeline has been to Nebraska – a political hot potato, embroiled in legal challenges, that risks becoming entangled in presidential politics.

This month, Mr. Obama denied Keystone a permit and could deal a similar fate to Northern Pass if the U.S. Department of Energy makes a final recommendation on the project before he leaves office. Otherwise, it will fall to his successor to approve the project, or not.

Eversource has agreed to bury about 100 kilometres (up from 13 kilometres in its original proposal) of the 300-kilometre Northern Pass underground to ease concerns about the line's impact on the environment and tourism in and around the scenic White Mountain National Forest. But burying the entire line, as some have called for, would be uneconomical.

Most U.S. politicians have refused to back Northern Pass, which also requires Hydro-Québec to spend about $500-million (Canadian) on new lines in Quebec and interconnections with New Hampshire. New Hampshire's four-member congressional delegation – which includes two Democrats and two Republicans – has called for the federal Energy Department to take "ample" time to hear out opponents.

Northern Pass is sure to be on the agenda when Republican presidential candidates appear at a New Hampshire debate just three days before the state's February primary. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has already had to tiptoe around Northern Pass, saying that "protecting the beauty" of New Hampshire "should be given great weight" in any decision.

If he doesn't want to jinx his chances, Mr. Couillard should refrain from calling Northern Pass a "no-brainer."

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