The Lower Churchill is "a game-changing regional energy play" and Premier Kathy Dunderdale has been taking reasonable, appropriate steps to see it forward, a former federal environment minister told members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association (NOIA) Friday.
Jim Prentice, now senior executive vice-president and vice-chairman of CIBC, said the Lower Churchill project is one of a collection of multi-billion-dollar natural resource projects being considered within Canada.
"It's fair to say that there is no other G8 country and, in fact, there is no other country in the world that is bringing on mega-projects, infrastructure projects, energy projects on the pace and scale of Canada," he said.
Many of the other infrastructure projects noted by Prentice were hydro projects, including the Conawapa hydro project in Manitoba and the Mattagami hydro project in Ontario.
"The investments that we are speaking about as Canadians are massive. We are talking close to $290 billion - that's billion dollars - in investments over the next 20 years," he said.
"Now, our economists at CIBC - we are vitally interested in this - our economists have analyzed the projects of which I speak and they estimate those projects will generate, in Canada, an additional one million jobs over the next 20 years."
Prentice was in St. John's continuing a series of speaking engagements around the country on Canada's energy mega-project potential.
A former MP for Calgary Centre North, he acted as minister if Industry and, subsequently, minister of Environment in the Harper cabinet. He resigned from his post in 2010 in order to take up his current position at CIBC.
In his address to NOIA members, titled "Nation Building Infrastructure: Why Lower Churchill Matters," he said the size and scope of the work planned for the Lower Churchill dams and associated transmission infrastructure makes it one of the largest projects on tap, with a capital cost estimated at $6.2-billion.
Compare this to the capital cost associated with the Northern Gateway pipeline, at about $5.5 billion.
"I think it's fair to say that (the Lower Churchill) is one of the largest energy infrastructures that has ever been built in Canadian history," he said.
To that, proponent Nalcor Energy has yet to decide whether or not it will move forward on its project plans.
Should it decide to push forward, challenges are still facing the development, Prentice said, including some public opposition and court challenges.
He made note of the report of the provincial Public Utilities Board.
"It was expected by many to serve as the influential judgment on the project and provide the people of Newfoundland and Labrador with clarity but, I think it's fair to say, if anything, it muddied the waters," he said.
"Personally, I am inclined to agree with the comment of former Premier Williams, who described the report as 'baffling,' but I will leave that discussion for another day."
He went on to express his support for Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale in relation to her work on the project, saying she "has charted a wise and entirely reasonable course of action" in assessing the merits of developing Muskrat Falls and the Lower Churchill as a whole.
"I find it difficult to see what else could reasonably be expected of the premier in these circumstances," he said, making note of the premier's commitment to allow a review of up-to-date numbers by Manitoba Hydro International and to a debate in the provincial legislature, now expected to happen this fall.
According to Prentice, the financial risk associated with the project will be worth the long-term benefits.
"Our bank is vitally interested in these issues. That is why I speak about these issues," he told NOIA members.
CIBC currently has no involvement in Lower Churchill project financing.
Following his speech, Prentice took questions from reporters and reiterated his support for Canada's proceeding with large hydro projects.
"It's good for the economy. It will be good for the environment and we need to be working together to make sure that happens," he said.
Prentice had offered a similarly ringing endorsement of the Lower Churchill plans during a presentation in Halifax in September 2011.