Journey has far-reaching possibilities

Posted Dec. 05, 2010, at 7:35 p.m.

When I showed my 7-year-old where Chisasibi, Quebec, was on the map and told him I was going there, he asked a very direct question. “Why?” My son hates it when I travel. Why was I going to drive north five hours to Quebec City, then catch a plane with 43 French-speaking Canadian officers to fly an additional two hours north to be driven in pickup trucks another hour east to a small Native American village of 3,500 Cree Indians? Was I going there for a hockey game?

The short answer was that the Canadian Army has invited the Maine Army National Guard to send a small group of Brewer’s B/3-172 Infantry (Mountain) soldiers to train with Canadian Forces and Cree Rangers. My job was to augment the Canadian battalion commander’s staff and help plan the exercise.

During a 15-day period in February and March, our Maine soldiers will learn cold weather survival skills, cover snow mobility techniques and Arctic combat operations. The training will be valuable, intense, and, well, cold.

The Canadian commander I worked with is an avid environmentalist. We had rousing conversations about the Animal Planet show “Whale Wars,” the BP oil spill, nuclear power and hydro power, and most importantly, the effects of climate change and energy policy on military strategy. We also talked a lot about hockey and the Canadian’s recent gold medal victory over the U.S.

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When not praising Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal, we delved into serious discussions about how global warming and energy policy may lead to the next round of international conflict. The basic question was “Are environmental issues worth committing coalition armed forces? Should we deploy our armies to protect seals? Should we sail our navies to save whales?”

As a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, I have studied the effects of climate change on military strategy. Canada, Russia, Norway, the United States and Denmark are racing to file territorial claims over oil, gas and precious metal reserves that could become more accessible as the Arctic ice cap shrinks.

Accessible hydrocarbons represent the potential for future wealth, but the opening of the Northwest Passage by Arctic shrinkage represents wealth now. As the ice caps melt, the passage will become more navigable for longer periods of time. A more accessible Northwest Passage, which Canada considers its waters, means mil-lions of dollars in reduced costs for shippers. Massive tankers no longer will have to traverse the Panama Canal to get to profitable Asian and West Coast markets.

Hydrocarbons and the Northwest Passage were interesting conversations, but I really learned what was going on during the last day of our trip. On that day, we toured Hydro-Quebec’s massive Robert-Bourassa 5,616-megawatt generation station located 137 meters underground in the depths of the Canadian Shield. The genera-tion station is part of the La Grande power complex.

In 1971, the Quebec government launched an ambitious project to develop the hydroelectric potential of the James Bay territory, home of some of the largest rivers in the province. The La Grande complex generates almost half of all the electricity in Quebec. The complex of dams, power generation stations and 6,000 kilometers of transmission lines is Quebec (and Canada’s) future for power generation. It’s also important to Bruins fans as the world’s only multiterminal direct current link that runs from Radisson, Quebec, all the way to Sandy Pond, near Boston.

During the tour, my military mind never really came up with a plausible scenario where an enemy would attack the dam system or get close enough to sabotage it. But, I did come to the conclusion that if someone did go up there and turn off that switch, a lot of people would be really angry and in the dark. It seemed worth de-fending in the event that the complex were attacked.

For now, the reason for my trip to Chisasibi is lost to my 7-year-old. I wonder though, if in his future, my trip will not seem so irrelevant and inconvenient. As climate change continues and energy policy debates rage, my children’s future wobbles in the balance.

While we never may deploy our armies to protect seals, we may deploy our soldiers to protect green hydro dam complexes that provide energy to the United States and our allies. We may ask our warships to protect our national interests in the Northwest Passage. And while we always should deploy our Maine Army National Guard soldiers to train with the Canadian Army, such a deployment always will be in the spirit of friendship and never in anger over something like, say, a hockey game.

Darryl W. Lyon of Bangor is an assistant professor of military science at the University of Maine’s ROTC department.

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