HALIFAX - A regulatory board's decision Monday on the Maritime Link is expected to reignite the debate among Nova Scotia politicians on the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, but observers say reading the political tea leaves based on the ruling could be complicated.
The Utility and Review Board is tasked with evaluating the proposal by utility company Emera (TSX:EMA) to build a subsea cable — known as the Maritime Link — that would ship power generated in Labrador to Nova Scotia.
The board has been asked to decide whether building the cable represents the cheapest long-term alternative for the province's electricity users and whether the $1.5-billion project meets requirements governing the release of greenhouse gases and air pollutants.
Since the project was announced in late 2010, it has been the subject of growing criticism from Nova Scotia's opposition parties, while the NDP government of Premier Darrell Dexter has backed it as the key to the province's energy future.
Pollster Don Mills of Corporate Research Associates said it is hard to say exactly how the public will react to the board's decision.
"It's a very complicated issue for the average person to understand," said Mills. "They are hearing both sides and it's pretty hard to figure out who's right and who's wrong, or who's telling the truth and who's not."
Mills said previous surveys in Newfoundland and Labrador, where debate over the project has been even more heated than in Nova Scotia, have indicated that a majority of the public seems to support the idea. But he said that hasn't translated into resounding approval for the Progressive Conservative government's performance.
"Despite the fact that it (the project) was getting a lot of media play in Newfoundland, it didn't seem to have an impact on how people judge the government."
Bill Black, the former CEO of Maritime Life and one-time leadership candidate for Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservatives, has written on the hydro project and believes while it may be a good thing, the deal surrounding it is bad for ratepayers.
As for the impact of the board's decision, he said that's less certain because there is a question about how closely the public follows the process.
"Those people who are deeply interested in the issue might think there is a lot riding on it politically," he said. "I don't know whether there is or not because I don't know enough about what average people think on the issue."
A public opinion survey by Corporate Research Associates conducted for the Nova Scotia government in February concluded views on the hydro project are "complex." Obtained by The Canadian Press under the province's freedom of information law, the survey contains no information on survey methods or margin of error.
The survey found a "high level" of agreement, 49 per cent, that Nova Scotia must invest in the project to ensure access to more stable power rates and to reduce reliance on coal. Slightly fewer than 43 per cent were of the "strong opinion" the project's cost would result in higher power rates and that the government should slow down its move toward renewable energy at an affordable pace.
The survey also found that those who think the government is on the right track were more likely to agree with the project and less likely to agree that it will mean higher power rates.
Citing confidentiality, Mills wouldn't comment on the survey, but said the political calculus could change depending on how the board views the project's long-term impact on people's pocketbooks.
"If the outcome is that for the next 10 years your power bills are going to be this much higher, then that's not going to be positive for the government," he said.
Mills agrees with Black on the level of public engagement on the project.
"It may not be as big a deal as either the proponents or the opponents to it feel, because in the everyday world of the average Nova Scotian they aren't spending a lot of time thinking about it," said Mills.