The new chairman of the New York Power Authority has dealt a major blow to Hydro-Quebec when he recommended the cancellation of the utility’s estimated $ 5-billion (U.S.) electricity contract with Quebec. The move gives more breathing room to Crees concerned about construction of the proposed Great Whale River project.

The 20-year contract to acquire 800 megawatts of power from Hydro-Quebec was signed in 1990, and the supply of power was to begin in 1999. David Freeman, the new chair of NYPA, said New York is “awash” with energy due to the recession, energy-conservation measures and increasing supply from independent producers.

The proposed cancellation would be the second contract Hydro-Quebec has lost with New York in two years. In 1992, NYPA cancelled a $17-billion contract following price disagreements and protest against destruction of Cree lands.

Hydro-Quebec downplayed Freeman’s statements, saying talks are still on track for a new contract for 1.5-billion kilowatt-hours of surplus power from Quebec. That represents half the power in the soon-to-be-cancelled contract. By restricting purchases to surplus power, New York power authorities hope they won’t be accused of financing the Great Whale project.

But the Grand Council of the Crees is jubilant over the NYPA chair’s statements. “I think Hydro-Quebec is reeling from this one,” said Brian Craik, the Grand Council’s federal-relations director. “Hydro-Quebec did not expect the New York Governor to appoint someone as progressive as Mr. Freeman, who has a history of restructuring utilities. Freeman is openly critical of Hydro-Quebec’s manner of development, under which costs are passed on to the ratepayers and taxpayers, and they build not what consumers need, but what special interests demand,” Craik said.

He added that energy policy is undergoing major rethinking in the U.S. and that Quebec is not immune. “Quebec cannot maintain a fortress mentality forever. They’ve got to get off the bigger-is-better mentality.”