It was a rapid-fire run under the big No. 1 in VOCM Valley. On Wednesday night, a live debate by provincial politicians on the merits of the proposed $6.2-billion Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project was held at VOCM studios on Kenmount Road in St. John’s.
The event began at 7 p.m. and debaters — Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy, interim Liberal Leader Dwight Ball and NDP Leader Lorraine Michael — were offered a minute to give opening remarks and a minute to close. In between came a series of questions posed by radio hosts Randy Simms and Paddy Daly.
Within their statements and responses, the opposition leaders made note the debate was not happening in the House of Assembly.
Both called for the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities (PUB) to be granted more time to complete a review of the Muskrat Falls project.
The PUB’s report is expected to be filed by the end of March, although PUB chairman Andy Wells has expressed a desire for more time.
Ball and Michael also said they feel there has been a lack of in-depth assessment of alternative options to the project currently on the table.
More specifically, they said the province has not given proper consideration to the idea of utilizing alternative power sources like wind power and natural gas — as in energy projects found in other parts of the country and around the world — rather than connecting the island to the mainland in order to bring power in from Muskrat Falls.
“We were only given two options. This is our problem right now,” Ball said.
He said the report by Manitoba Hydro International (MHI) assessing the project, released Feb. 1, like the review of the PUB, does not look at alternatives.
Overall, “this is not the type of thorough, rigorous review the people of the province were expecting,” he said.
Ball raised questions on some of the specific details of the plan. He asked for the cost of Muskrat Falls power to Soldiers Pond, near Holyrood.
He noted no firm detail, no legal language, was yet available to discuss, as Nalcor and Emera have not come to an agreement on the project to present to the province. “We don’t have a deal,” he said.
Michael said she had heard “nothing new” from her political fellows over the course of the evening.
Yet she, too, raised questions on certain aspects of the project — including the potential for cost overruns and questions on potential environmental impacts of the hydro dam.
She said she has requested documentation showing Nalcor has looked at alternatives using wind and smaller hydro power. She suggested that kind of in-depth information is not compiled anywhere.
Kennedy was unfazed.
He suggested the Liberal and NDP leaders are being affected by a fear of entering into an energy deal with financial pitfalls akin to the infamous Upper Churchill agreement.
“The debate that’s occurring in the province didn’t occur when the Upper Churchill deal was signed in 1967,” he told reporters.
“While we must learn from the mistakes of the past, as politicians we must not be paralyzed.”
As for giving the PUB more time for its report?
“Despite the criticisms, Nalcor has filed over 15,000 pages of documents and responded to more than 400 requests for information,” Kennedy said.
“So the PUB, I’m assuming, have been doing their work throughout this and they have to answer a question which in my mind Manitoba Hydro has already answered, because Muskrat Falls is clearly the least-cost option.”
Kennedy noted the project has not yet been sanctioned and said there will be a chance for further debate on record once the House opens.